Earnhardts changing gears

Auto racing: Dale Jr. gets a new crew chief and his relatives try out other duties in the interest of maturity and harmony.

Daytona 500

Sunday 1 p.m., Ch. 45

Auto Racing

February 17, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Oh, how the headphones crackled last season, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his uncle and crew chief, Tony Eury, telling each other what they thought during races. And how the volume rose in the garage when Earnhardt and his cousin, Tony Eury Jr., argued over the car's setup.

That's how it is with families. Tempers flare. Voices rise. But does anyone listen? Does anyone learn anything? Is there respect?

During the offseason, a series of meetings led to a swap of teams. Earnhardt slid into the seat formerly occupied by teammate Michael Waltrip, and Waltrip slid into Earnhardt's old seat.

The car numbers were painted anew. Eury Sr. was promoted to Dale Earnhardt, Inc.'s director of competition, giving his son the crew chief's job with Waltrip, and Earnhardt moved over to work with crew chief Pete Rondeau.

"We made the change basically for me," said Earnhardt in explaining the swap "Me and Tony Jr. worked hard together for a long time. ... We kind of tapped each other out. Now, this is a new chapter. I like Pete - a lot. And, I think this move will mature me."

Qualifying day last Sunday tested his resolve. The DEI cars that have dominated for four years in restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega, Ala., were only 33rd (Waltrip, 185.448 mph) and 39th (Earnhardt, 184.888) fastest.

But yesterday during practice Earnhardt at least improved, coming in with the 12th-fastest lap (189.278). Waltrip picked up two miles an hour but dropped overall to 35th fastest at 187.978 mph.

Several teams, including those of Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield and Joe Nemechek, had tire problems, with chunks of rubber coming off during practice. Goodyear's Greg Stuzker, director of race tire sales and marketing, said it is not normal for tires to come apart that way.

He said Goodyear engineers are working with teams to keep their cars as balanced as possible and seven tires have been shipped back to Akron for testing.

"Things are actually going well for us," said Rondeau, whose team was not among those with tire trouble. "The communication is going good. We struggled in qualifying. We're not really sure why. We did have some ignition box trouble in the shootout. It could have been something there. ... But during this practice, Dale said the car felt good."

Today, in the Gatorade Duel No. 1, 150-mile qualifying race, Earnhardt will start fifth and Rondeau said he is hoping for a good race that will gain them a top 10 starting spot for Sunday's Daytona 500.

"But if we have to start in the back, we'll do fine," Rondeau said. "The only problem with starting in the back is that it will have meant we had a bad 150."

While growing up, Earnhardt was teased relentlessly by his father - seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt - about his partying, video games and late-morning sleep-ins. Because of that, the son worries a lot about showing maturity. It is often the underlying theme when he talks about being the offspring of a legend.

He worries despite being the defending Daytona 500 champion, despite having won six times last season and 15 times in his five-year career and despite finishing fifth in the Nextel Cup standings last season.

You hear it when he wonders aloud about how he fits in at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. You hear it when he talks about how he handles himself in public.

Now he is taking a risk, shaking up his team in an effort to go from a fifth place in the standings to first.

"It is definitely a risky move," said Eury Sr. "Last year, we were one wreck from winning the championship."

Though Earnhardt insists he has no expectations and feels no great pressure to win a title because he knows "one day, some day I'm going to win one," there is little doubt he wants one badly.

Surrounded by family, by memories and by others' expectations, the pressure shows through when things don't go well on the track. At those times, he has screamed at the Eurys and the Eurys have screamed back.

"Dale Jr. is going to have to learn to communicate," said Eury Sr. "Before, it was only a matter of his opinion. Now, he and Pete will be working together."

But Eury Sr. laughed when he heard Earnhardt talking about being nicer to Rondeau.

"I don't think he'll treat Pete any different from anyone else," he said. "Dale Jr. is Dale Jr. He wants his team to drive good and if it doesn't, he'll scream no matter who's working on it."

Part of Rondeau's role is to add a composure that the Eurys couldn't manage.

"I know he gets fairly excited when things are going bad," said Rondeau. "I'm hoping to be a calming voice when things are bad and he's feeling down."

Daytona 500

What: NASCAR Nextel Cup season opener and premier event

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

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