Shifting Gears

With nothing left to chase this year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. changes focus from the ol' number 8 to the promise of '08

AS THE most tumultuous season of his career sputters to an end, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has become NASCAR's dangling man. Having failed to qualify for the Chase, he's stuck in limbo for next season, when he will move to Hendrick Motorsports—even as his future teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon remain locked in a battle for the Nextel Cup. Junior's races are noteworthy now only for their complete lack of consequence or meaning, a fact he seems to have accepted. Last Friday, two days before his 14th-place finish in the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the sport's most popular driver stood outside his hauler and patiently answered questions from an ESPN crew, not about racing but about the upcoming NFL showdown between the Colts and the Patriots. After his uneventful run, he left the track on Sunday night almost immediately in order to get a jump on a midweek hunting expedition to Oklahoma. (Trip motto: If it's brown, it goes down.)

Little E's most noteworthy work last week was done well in advance of Sunday's race. On Oct. 29 he began two days of testing at Atlanta with his new team, putting the number 5 Chevy—which bore the paint scheme of owner Rick Hendrick's very first Cup car, from 1984—through its paces for the first time in front of camera crews and reporters. Also present was Earnhardt's longtime crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., who joined Hendrick three weeks ago after stepping down from his post at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "It's like we're going to a new school and making new friends," said Earnhardt.

He and Eury actually got their first taste of racing for Hendrick at Texas on April 15, two months before Earnhardt's split with DEI. On that day, after a late-race collision with Kyle Busch, Junior drove the last 10 laps of the Samsung 500 in the number 5 car of Busch, who had gone AWOL from the Cup garage. Talking about the informal test drive with Eury after the race, Earnhardt mentioned how much smoother the car's steering had felt compared with that of his own number 8 Chevy. It was a small difference but significant nonetheless—a sign of what you can do when you have the resources to devote to even the smallest details.

That's not the way things worked at DEI over the last few years. (In July the company merged with Ginn Racing to increase its available resources.) For the first time in his career Eury is working with a computer simulator, and he has access to Hendrick's formidable lineup of in-house experts, including renowned chassis engineer Rex Stump. (Until this season DEI's chassis were manufactured by an outside builder.) "A lot of times Dale and I had questions about that kind of stuff, but there was nobody around to ask," says Eury. "We felt like we were on an island."

Will such things make a difference to Earnhardt next year? They can't hurt. With all the misfortune that's befallen him this season—he has suffered a series-high six blown engines in 2007—a little attention to detail could make a big difference. He says he's ready for a fresh approach, and Eury is already using the looser car setups favored by Jimmie Johnson as a baseline for working on Junior's car. "If we just do what we've always done, we know we can race with them," says Eury. "But if we keep an open mind and learn, then I think we can start winning."

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Short Laps

1 Jimmie Johnson (right) continued his rootin'-tootin' Chase run on Sunday with his third straight win and now leads teammate Jeff Gordon in the standings by 30 points. If there's hope for Gordon—who has seen a 69-point lead vanish in three races despite finishing in the top 10 each time—it's that Sunday's race is at Phoenix, where he won for the first time last April and where Johnson is winless in eight starts.

2 It took eight races, but second-year driver Clint Bowyer finally faltered on Sunday, finishing 19th, his first Chase finish yet out of the top 12. On Lap 245, with his left rear wheel coming loose, he pitted under a green flag and fell from sixth to 22nd—a disappointing end to a remarkable run.

PHOTONIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCKTAKE 5 Earnhardt's first test (in retro trim) for Hendrick had both men smiling.
PHOTONIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK[See caption above] PHOTODARREN CARROLL (JOHNSON)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)