AP photo by Mike McCarn|
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start fourth in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday night.
Eyes on the road
As contract talks continue,
Earnhardt focuses on racing
By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press Writer
CONCORD, N.C. — With his sister handling all his suitors, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was able to focus on racing for the first time since he became a free agent. The result was his best qualifying effort of the season.
Earnhardt will start fourth in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 as he tries to snap a 37-race winless streak. He'll do it with an interim crew chief — regular Tony Eury Jr. is serving a six-race NASCAR suspension — but plenty of confidence that he can drive to his first points victory at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt made his first Cup start at Lowe's in 1999, and won his first career pole in this event the next season. But he's never finished higher than third in NASCAR's longest race.
"We can win any race we enter; we're a competitive team," he said. "One of these days we're going to make the whole thing happen, but 600 miles is a long ways. There were times I came in here and felt like I've had winning cars, only to see something happen. You'll age 30 years running a race here, with all the things that happen.
"It's a long, long race, and hopefully I can be patient and put myself in position to win."
The 600 is typically a race of attrition, as many cars struggle to make it to the finish because of the changing track conditions. The race begins in the daytime and ends at night.
It's also a strain on the drivers, who must concentrate for the entire four-plus hours they are strapped into the steaming hot cockpit of a race car.
Earnhardt has struggled with the mental aspect of completing 600 miles before. But since announcing May 10 that he's leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of this season, Junior says he has reached a level of clarity and calmness he's lacked the past few seasons.
"I've taken a lot of pressure off myself personally, that's why I am enjoying it more," he said. "I've cleared a lot of issues that I had personally, cleared a lot of personal problems that I had out of the way.
"I'm real happy."
Real busy, too.
Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, his sister and business manager, told The Associated Press that she wants to complete Junior's new deal by the end of June and has spent the past two weeks sorting through all his options.
She said the priority is still to stay with a Chevrolet team. But the top three candidates all have slight issues that could slow the process.
Rick Hendrick told the AP he presently doesn't have any room in his four-car Hendrick Motorsports stable for Earnhardt, and Joe Gibbs Racing officials are hesitant to strike a deal with Budweiser, Junior's longtime sponsor.
Then there's Richard Childress Racing, where Earnhardt's late father won six of his seven championships. Although RCR seems like a perfect fit, the sides have not spoken.
"Right now, Junior and Kelley have a lot of things to consider and a really big decision to make, and I'm just giving them their space as they deal with it all," Childress told the AP. "I want them to make the best decision, and they know I'm always here to talk and give advice."
When asked if it was peculiar that he had yet to speak to NASCAR's most coveted free agent — at a time when the Earnhardts actively are taking meetings with other owners — Childress said not to read anything into their lack of contact.
"They know how I operate," he said.
Elledge said Friday she plans to formally speak with Childress, and the two have traded phone calls.
Elledge's heavy involvement has allowed Earnhardt to focus on his race team at a time when it needs his full attention.
Eury, busted for a technical infraction two weeks ago at Darlington, started his six-race suspension this week. The penalty cost Junior 100 points and dropped him to 14th in the standings, and the team will have to tread water during Eury's absence to remain in contention for the Chase for the championship.
The top 12 drivers make the Chase, NASCAR's 10-race championship-deciding series, and Earnhardt wants to give his DEI crew one last shot at a title before he bolts.
Tony Gibson, a former crew chief at DEI who is now Junior's car chief, will call the shots for the next six weeks, and Earnhardt said he has faith in his leadership.
"I feel very, very confident that he knows me well," Earnhardt said. "We've worked together and get along great. He came over last week and we talked a little about it and we pumped ourselves up some. That helps a lot.
"We shouldn't have any issues at all. I feel confident we'll run as good as we should and Tony Jr. will be very proud of what we've been able to do once he gets back."
Nextel Cup standings
1. Jeff Gordon 1,881
2. Jimmie Johnson 1,650
3.Matt Kenseth 1,582
4. Denny Hamlin 1,539
5. Jeff Burton 1,486
6. Tony Stewart 1,375
7. Kurt Busch 1,325
8. Kyle Harvick 1,315
9. Clint Bowyer 1,302
10. Carl Edwards 1,291
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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