Dale Earnhardt Jr in championship hunt

Dale Earnhardt Jr in championship hunt

Last week Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced that he had reached a contract agreement with DEI to drive the ...

Last week Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced that he had reached a contract agreement with DEI to drive the #8 Chevrolet through 2007, Earnhardt revealed that he had considered driving for another team after an inconsistent 2002, and contract points on which he refused to budge (namely personal appearances). The disputes were resolved and ultimately he preferred to stay with the team his father created, currently owned by Earnhardt's stepmother, Teresa.

Dale Earnhardt Jr..
Photo by Richard Sloop.
With all the contract disputes settled, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is poised to mount his 2003 championship campaign. Earnhardt was impressive in Daytona Cup testing charting the 11th fastest speed. He also shined during Busch Series tests at the Speedway, where he consistently ran half-a-second faster than the rest of the field (Earnhardt is the 2002 winner of the season opening Busch event).

"Mentally and physically, I'm as prepared as I have probably been in my career," Earnhardt said. "We should battle for the championship. We're that good."

Earnhardt may feel like this is coming a season late. He entered the 2002 season with aspirations of becoming the Winston Cup champion, and came out of the box strong in the beginning events of the year. A midyear slump, however, would see his dreams of that championship go up in smoke. Despite two wins, Earnhardt finished 11th in points.

"I changed that last year, and we got some good runs at places we hadn't expected," Earnhardt Jr. said. "That's given us more inspiration to try to stab at the championship this year."

What is apparent is that the #8 Chevy team is readying themselves to gain momentum and consistency season long. Earnhardt has made off-season changes within his team, which include shuffling around his pit crew.

"The people we had in those positions before had kind of lost the spark we needed or the enthusiasm toward the team," Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt is definitely paying more attention to business this season, with the creation of Chance2 Motorsports, a team co-owned by Earnhardt and stepmother Teresa he has the opportunity to explore the responsibilities of being a team owner. He already is quite vocal about the direction of DEI and the careers of his teammates.

"It's not really a big secret that this is a make or break year for Steve (Park)," said Earnhardt. "We put a lot of thought about what to do there. It was a real tough decision and we felt we needed to give Steve a good opportunity this year and I think we have put good people in position to really make a difference on that team. Hopefully this season he can get some good finishes and get some confidence back and the guys get some confidence in him."

"With Michael (Waltrip), he changed his attitude quite a bit," Earnhardt continued. "I don't really know what was affecting their performance on the race track, but it changed dramatically last year and they got some good runs in. His attitude has changed tremendously and that was the biggest thing with him - trying to get him to be more cooperative, I guess, and be by the shop more often and work with the guys. I've seen a big change in Michael."

Suddenly, Earnhardt is all business, and one thing is quite clear, that he intends on making his father's legacy a championship team.

"There are just a lot of things that need to be better to where I feel more comfortable racing," Earnhardt said. "I'm 28 years old and I've got to put myself in positions to win championships."

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Series NASCAR-CUP