CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't exactly say he and his No. 8 Chevrolet team are desperate, but it sounded a lot like that yesterday.
"We had just flat-lined a little bit," said Earnhardt, describing the reason for his second crew chief change in four months.
"I felt we could be a lot better. Steve Hmiel can get in there and see a few things. He already knows a lot about what I like and don't like. But now the door is opened. We're willing to look outside for a new crew chief."
In January, Earnhardt announced he and teammate Michael Waltrip were swapping teams. Tony Eury Jr., with whom Earnhardt argued throughout the 2004 season, would become Waltrip's crew chief, while Earnhardt would work with Pete Rondeau.
It seemed a risky change at the time for Earnhardt, who had finished the previous season with six wins and in fifth place in the Nextel Cup standings. He seemed just one win or one concentrated effort away from a championship.
But on that January day, as he talked about the fresh start with a new crew, Earnhardt was full of anticipation and hope.
That hope seemed about to be rewarded in recent weeks as Earnhardt climbed from 27th in the Cup standings on March 13 to ninth on May 1. But he hadn't won, and a 14th place in Richmond, Va., May 14 dropped him to 11th.
Last week, Richie Gilmore, motor sports manager for Dale Earnhardt Inc., announced Rondeau would be replaced by Hmiel, his team's technical adviser who had been acting as Earnhardt's spotter at some races.
Though such changes usually signify renewed hope, the atmosphere at yesterday's news conference did anything but pop and sizzle.
Hmiel, who had been a top-of-the-line crew chief with Mark Martin nearly a decade ago, has been thrust into a position he thought he had left behind. And Earnhardt comes out looking as if he may be a hard-to-get-along-with driver, one who wants to not only drive the race car, but also direct his team's game plan from the track.
From the outside, observations were mixed.
When driver Ryan Newman, who won the pole for Sunday evening's Coca-Cola 600 with a record-smashing speed of 192.988 mph, which was 4.111 mph faster than the previous Lowe's Motor Speedway record, was asked what he thought about Earnhardt changing his crew chief 11 weeks into the season, he couldn't resist a laugh.
"What did you think when he changed his entire crew in mid-winter?" Newman said. "I don't care what he does, but I'd be surprised if he does well Sunday night."
Outside pole-sitter Jeff Gordon said it took him and his crew chief, Robbie Loomis, half a year to become comfortable with each other.
"I'm not there day in and day out and on the [team] radio," said Gordon. "It's tough for me to judge ... [but] they really made a lot of gains in the points over the past four races, and went from way back up to the top 10 and then they made the change.
"But hey, only Junior and those guys on that team really know what's going on. I have no idea."
Hmiel indicated there had been little communication between the Earnhardt and Waltrip teams. He said that will change.
"It's going to be a strictly open book, like the teams who are winning have," Hmiel said, referring to the multicar efforts of car owners Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush.
"If I fail to do the job, it will be because I didn't properly utilize all the resources and people we have."
Earnhardt said that while he and Rondeau were "really, really good friends, when we got to the racetrack we just struggled with improving the cars throughout practice and throughout the race. ... We found ourselves, I guess a lot of times, just kind of out of touch in the middle part of the race. There was a lot of things.
"I didn't feel like personally I was getting a lot of information about what changes were being done on the car and I'm sure that I wasn't giving him enough information about what those changes were doing," said Earnhardt, who qualified 15th (189.474 mph) in his first effort with Hmiel.
"I just felt we had to make a change to give it a good shot and give it an opportunity. Eleven races are definitely enough to understand if it was going to work out or not.
"If Steve comes in and hits a home run, that's great. If not, we'll use the next several months to see the interest level from outside the team. The important thing is to get it right.
"Right now, I think we're a good enough team to make the [Nextel Cup] Chase."