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Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon Back on Track in ’06?

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Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual

As the prospect of NASCAR’s not having either of its biggest names in the 2005 Chase for the Nextel Cup settled on the sport early last summer, there were those who actually, honestly expected an 11th-hour format change to prevent that from happening. 

No such alteration came, of course. There’s no real evidence, in fact, to support the idea it was ever even considered.

But the very fact that rumor of such a change even made one lap around the Cup garage without getting immediately shot down proves just how significant it was that neither Jeff Gordon nor Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among last year’s Chase contenders.

Ardent fans who follow the standings each week knew, as the 2005 season moved toward the Chase, that Gordon was trying to play catch-up to make the top 10 and that Earnhardt Jr. had fallen so far behind there was no coming back this time around.

But many people who watch NASCAR less frequently might have tuned in when the Chase opened in September and been surprised that neither Gordon nor

Earnhardt Jr. had any shot at winning the championship.

After all, Gordon was the sport’s winningest active driver who kicked off his quest for a fifth championship last year with a victory in the Daytona 500, the sport’s biggest event. He’d hosted Saturday Night Live and filled in for Regis Philbin. He’d even made the supermarket tabloids when he got a costly divorce.

And then there was Earnhardt Jr., whose commercials seem to run more often than the “Can You Hear Me Now?” guy’s do. The son of the man who, for a generation, embodied the things that helped NASCAR grow from a regional niche to a national phenomenon had won a Daytona 500 of his own the previous year and seemed poised to win a title of his own.

Without either Junior or Gordon in the Chase, the big national story going into the 10-race title contest wasn’t who might win the championship, but how might ticket sales and television ratings for the Chase’s second year be impacted by the absence of the sport’s top two names? Never mind, of course, that Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. were still going to be racing in those final 10 events, or that under the pre-Chase championship system they both would have been out of title contention long before the final 10 races.

But while so many others were wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth about what marketing impact their absences from the Chase might have, Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. were far more concerned about what to do so that the question wouldn’t need to be answered again.

As soon as it was official they couldn’t win the 2005 title, both Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. immediately turned their attention toward getting back into contention in the upcoming season.

“Our 2006 started when the (2005) Chase started,” Gordon says. “By not making the Chase, we were able to really regroup and make a bunch of changes, not just personnel changes, but changes with the race cars themselves as well. When the season is going on, you can’t make major changes because you’ve got too many guys that you’re battling with for points and you don’t want to make huge changes.”

The most visible moves for both Gordon and Earnhardt were changes in the crew chief’s position. Beginning with the first Chase race at Loudon, N.H., Robbie Loomis left the top of Gordon’s pit box and gave way to Steve Letarte, a long-time Hendrick Motorsports employee who Gordon said the team had been grooming to take over the position anyway. Loomis stayed on at Hendrick Motorsports as a consultant to Jimmie Johnson’s team for the rest of the 2005 season, then left to take over leadership of day-to-day activities at Petty Enterprises. Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, tried to erase a sub-par 2005 season by going back a year. After the 2004 season, Dale Earnhardt Inc. officials announced a team swap that put Earnhardt Jr. with the crew and cars that Michael Waltrip had been in. That put Pete Rondeau in charge of the No. 8 Chevrolets for Earnhardt Jr., but that experiment lasted only until May. Steve Hmiel, who’d been overseeing all of DEI’s racing operations, took over as Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief at Charlotte.

By New Hampshire, however, Earnhardt Jr. had been reunited with Tony Eury Jr., who had served as car chief under his father, Tony Sr., on the No. 8 cars before the big swap. Earnhardt Jr. and Eury Jr. grew up together, but even though they loved each other like brothers, they often fought like brothers, too. Eury Jr. served as Michael Waltrip’s crew chief for the first two-thirds of the 2005 season, but when it was announced that Waltrip would leave DEI at season’s end it seemed to be only a matter of time before Earnhardt Jr. and Eury Jr. would be reunited.

As early as Indianapolis in August, in fact, Earnhardt Jr. was talking about what eventually did happen a month later.

“We didn’t change the teams because of a performance issue,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “We changed it because of attitude issues between me and Tony Jr. (And) it did what it was supposed to do. It fixed my attitude and it fixed his attitude. Now we look at each other and talk to each other today totally different. We have a lot more respect for each other (and) that gives us an opportunity to work together in the future that we wouldn’t have had if we had run ourselves totally apart.

“On performance issues, maybe we shouldn’t have changed things. But in the long run, personally I am better for it, and I think Tony Jr. is too. I think we were just both really immature for our age. That’s due to the fact our fathers let us raise ourselves, pretty much. I think the more mature we get the easier it is for us to work together. This year sped that up quite a bit, being away from each other.”

It is fair to say that neither change proved to be an immediate panacea for Gordon or Earnhardt Jr. Gordon finished 37th twice and 38th once in the four races after New Hampshire. After finishing fifth at Loudon, Earnhardt Jr. was 31st, 40th, 34th and 42nd in his next four races.

But Gordon won at Martinsville, then finished second at Atlanta, 14th at Texas, third at Phoenix and ninth at Homestead. Earnhardt Jr. led 142 laps and finished fourth at Atlanta and was eighth at Texas before crashing at Phoenix and running a so-so 19th at Homestead, a track where he’s always struggled.

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On the momentum front, then, Gordon would seem to have the upper hand on Earnhardt Jr. coming into a 2006 season that, for both of them, looms as a very important year in their respective careers. Earnhardt Jr. will be back with a crew chief he’s worked very closely with on the Cup level, while Gordon’s crew chief will be going through his first full season in the crucible.

“I think we have a little bit of new life in the team, which happens sometimes,” Gordon say. “Sometimes you need to get a spark going and get some excitement. Sometimes it takes changes. We’ve got that right now. I like working with Steve Letarte. He’s exceeded my expectations. I’m looking forward to 2006. We don’t like finishing outside the top 10 in points. We want to make sure that (this) year we’re battling for the championship.”

NASCAR wants fans to care about who finishes highest in the final standings among those not in the Chase, but nobody does. Gordon certainly didn’t care after doing that in 2005, holding off Jamie McMurray by 44 points. His victory at Martinsville, which completed a season’s sweep at the short track in Virginia, was nice, of course. But he was far more worried about how he and his team could get the No. 24 Chevrolets running better on intermediate tracks, where things had derailed on them earlier in 2005.

Gordon won the Daytona 500 last year, then won at Talladega and Martinsville, too. He finished second at Darlington, and despite having finished 30th at California and 39th at Atlanta he was still second in the points after 10 races. What followed that, though, was the worst six-race stretch of his Cup career. Except for a ninth at Pocono, Gordon finished 30th or worse from Richmond to Sonoma. In the first 10 races of last season, he scored 1,392 points. Over the next 10, he scored 866. Still, when he finished sixth at Bristol in August, he actually got back up to 10th in the standings with two races before the Chase cutoff. But he finished 21st at California and 30th at Richmond, and that was that.

“The only way you should be in the Chase is if you’ve earned it,” Gordon says. “The bottom line is we didn’t earn it.”

If Gordon can bounce all the way back into contention, 2006 could be a milestone year in his career. He did win four races in 2005, bringing his career total to 73. Dale Earnhardt Sr. had 76 career victories. Gordon has now won three or more races in a remarkable 11 straight seasons, so if he continues that streak he will at least tie Earnhardt on the all-time victories list in 2006.

If Gordon does win a fifth championship in ’06, his ’05 season will undoubtedly be compared to the blip on Earnhardt’s résumé that was his 1992 campaign. After winning championships in 1990 and 1991, Earnhardt finished 12th in the 1992 standings with only six top 5s and one victory. Kirk Shelmerdine left as Earnhardt’s crew chief after that season, but in the next two years Earnhardt came back to win his sixth and seventh championships.

The subject of championships, of course, also comes up immediately when attention is turned to Junior. The 31-year-old son of the sport’s fallen legend had finished third and fifth in the final standings in the two seasons prior to 2005. He’d won six races and finished in the top 5 on 16 occasions in 2004, so he seemed to need only a modicum of consistency added to his formula to make him a threat to add to the family’s championship totals.

It’s pointless now to rehash the DEI decision to swap crews and cars before the 2005 season. No one needed particularly keen perception to know that it was a major gamble going in, and it didn’t take very long to figure out that it was not paying off.

Earnhardt Jr. finished third in the Daytona 500 to start 2005 but was 32nd at California and 42nd at Las Vegas — the kind of tracks where the No. 8 team has never really seemed to get a handle on things. Six straight top 15 finishes, starting with Bristol, got him back to ninth in the standings, but that wound up being the high-water mark. Earnhardt Jr. did parlay a fuel-mileage gamble into a race victory at Chicagoland Speedway in July, extending his streak of having at least one win in each of his six full Cup seasons. But he finished 19th in the final standings, the lowest in each of those six years.

Earnhardt Jr. admits that for much of 2005 he kept waiting for his team’s momentum to catch and carry him up into the Chase.

“I felt like we would make a surge and get there,” he says. “I saw who we were racing against, and I felt like we could get good enough to beat those guys. When you look at it, really, the Chase is relatively easy to make when you don’t have a year like we had. Maybe ‘easy’ isn’t the right word, but it is if our team does what we’re capable of. If we just do a couple of things different, we’re in. It’s a makeable deal for everybody who’s competitive on a weekly basis.”

The 2005 season was sub-par on all fronts for Earnhardt Jr. and his team. Although he’s won only six Cup poles in his career, Earnhardt Jr.’s average starting spot for Cup races had been 13th or better for three seasons before 2005. Last year, it was 24.9. His average finish was 20.5, about eight spots below the previous two years.

“This year is going to be pretty important for us,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “My sponsors want us to do well and have a good season. All of them put a lot into marketing stuff and you have to back it up on the track. I put pressure on myself, too. I expect it out of myself, to run well and run up front.”

While Gordon has the pressure of living up to his own résumé, in some fans’ eyes the gauge for Earnhardt Jr. is his father. It’s hard for anyone to fill those shoes, but statistically Earnhardt Jr. is not doing that poorly.

After his sixth full season in the Cup Series, Earnhardt Sr. had run 188 races and won 11 times. He had 68 top 5 and 108 top 10 finishes and had led 4,624 laps. At that same stage, with six full seasons under his belt, Earnhardt Jr. has 219 starts with 16 wins, 59 top 5s and 92 top 10s. And he’s led 4,610 laps.

But Earnhardt did have a championship in his first six years. Earnhardt Jr. does not, and there are those who say that until he does win a championship, his popularity and status in the sport are not completely deserved. “Sometimes it gets rough on me,” Earnhardt Jr. says of the expectations. “Most of the time, though, the expectations are legitimate. We’re in a professional sport, showing up with the opportunity and the resources and the people to compete. We should be taking this seriously and striving for excellence. It’s not about shelling out excuses all of the time.”

Earnhardt Jr. says the pressure to win a championship this year is not as great as it might seem. “I know I can do this for a long time,” he says. “I don’t know what everybody anticipates out of me as far as longevity, but I think I am getting better at managing the off-track stuff every year, and managing the mental side of it. I think I will have plenty of opportunities to win championships and just to be there battling for them like we were the previous couple of years before this one. That’s all you want.

“Winning championships is the icing on the cake to what I’ve already accomplished. I am not satisfied with what I’ve been able to do now. I’m proud of it, and I’ve already been able to do more than I anticipated I could. But I see there’s potential for me to strive to achieve more. I want to realize those goals one day.”

Earnhardt Jr. says that just because he’s not like his father in some ways, it doesn’t mean he has less desire to be a champion.

“It surprises me that people question my desire,” he says. “I don’t claim to have the killer desire or instinct that my dad had. He had his ‘The Intimidator’ style. But I am as determined to drive and win and race hard and pass and beat people as he was. I don’t give up spots on the track. I race hard.

“The only thing that separates us is that he was intimidating. I’m not. I don’t look intimidating. Now when I am on the track and I am catching up to you, maybe you’re worried about what Junior is going to do. But I don’t drive a black car, I don’t have a snarl on my face and I don’t wear the dark sunglasses. That was his persona, but it was real. It’s who he was. He did a lot of things with a race car that I can’t even dream about doing, but I am as hard after it as anybody.”