Earnhardt back on his game in Phoenix

It's like old times again for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. After a forgettable season that included three crew chief changes and several uninspired finishes, Earnhardt and his ...

It's like old times again for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

After a forgettable season that included three crew chief changes and several uninspired finishes, Earnhardt and his #8 Chevy team are back with a vengeance.

This time last year, Earnhardt had a pair of top-5's and three top-10's and was 15th in the point standings. He has the same number of up-front finishes this year, but his overall performance has been much stronger. His worst finish was in the third race of the year when he brought his Budweiser Chevrolet home 27th in Las Vegas. He is sixth in the standings after the first seven races of the season.

Earnhardt says that his reunion with his cousin and crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. has been a big part of his success so far this season.

"I like working with him," said Earnhardt, who has finished on the lead lap in all seven races this season. "We have a really good working relationship. It's even better now than it was. We always had a great relationship growing up and all that -- racing together and all that. But this racing gets to you sometimes and we got to beating on each other a little bit. So it probably was a good thing."

After winning a pair of Busch Series championships and 15 Cup races in his first five seasons, Earnhardt parted ways with crew chief Tony Eury Sr. and Eury Jr. Eury Sr. moved into a management role with DEI while Eury Jr. was shuffled to Michael Waltrip's #15 team. Earnhardt worked with Pete Rondeau and then Steve Hmiel during a tumultuous season and when he was officially eliminated from the Chase for the Championship, Earnhardt was partnered with Eury Jr. with the intention of building the program for 2006.

"Obviously we didn't win as many races as we would have like to last year," said Earnhardt, who finished a career low 19th in the standings. It was also the first time that he failed to win more than one race in a season. "We didn't have that success. But as far as our relationship, it's probably a good thing that we took that year apart and sort of saw the other side of the fence together.

It's really a great relationship now. We have a lot of fun. We have a lot of goals to meet and a lot of confidence in each other. I'm trying to prove to him that he's got a dedicated driver. And he's doing everything he can for me. Hopefully we can get back to where we were in '04 and improve on that."

Their partnership was never stronger than during Earnhardt's inspired run at Martinsville a few weeks ago. After getting caught up in an opening lap incident that tore off most of the sheet metal on the front right corner of his car, they battled back for a fourth place finish.

The team is looking forward to coming to Phoenix this weekend, where they won consecutive races in 2003 and 2004. Earnhardt would love nothing more than to get back into victory lane in the Subway Fresh 500 on Saturday (8:00 p.m. Eastern on FOX).

"We run pretty good at Phoenix," said Earnhardt, who has four top-5 finishes in seven races at Phoenix International Raceway. "We like this race track and we've won a couple of races here and we still seem to have a good handle on the set-up when race time comes. Even when Tony Jr. wasn't crew-chiefing the car in the first race, we still had a top five finish. So I'm really getting to where I like the track and I get a lot of confidence when I come here."

Earnhardt had a forgettable start to his Cup career in Phoenix. He finished 27th in 2000 and 37th in 2001. The next year, he was fifth and then won the next two races. A second date was added to PIR last year and Earnhardt finished fourth in the first race, but crashed and finished 40th in the second race.

"When I first started running here, I didn't get around the place very good," Earnhardt said. "It was just a real hot, slick race track for me. I don't know what happened, but we showed up one week and this thing was just really, really fast and we've been fast ever since. So it's something in the car or in the set-up of the car that Tony Jr. found -- maybe at a test at Richmond or somewhere -- that has helped us here. That's really how we won those races and turned it around from the first races we had here. So that has a lot to do with it."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Michael Waltrip