Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he's stepped up his commitment.
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Sunday's Samsung/RadioShack 500 showed the DEI team is finally getting into the game, but it will take a bunch of similar Sundays for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip to even get close to the Nextel Cup top 10.
First, they need to crack the top 20.
So Earnhardt said he's stepping up the pressure: "I've stepped up my commitment.
"I started out the year relaxed, allowing these [new] guys to get used to the [crew] change. I didn't really want to push them hard at the start.
"But we're starting to get into the season, and we're starting to work a little harder and demand a little more."
New crew chief
Still, it's unclear how closely the two teams are working. After several years with Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr. calling the shots, Earnhardt has a new crew chief this season, little-known Pete Rondeau. Tony Jr. has taken over Waltrip's team, and Tony Sr. is trying to work with both teams.
Tony Sr. dismisses some of Earnhardt's gripes: "Dale Jr. is doing a lot of complaining about the engines. They're not really that bad. We're just a little off and need to get better."
Lower downforce rules
And while Earnhardt continues to complain about NASCAR's lower downforce rules, Eury Sr. says that the smaller spoiler wasn't that much of a problem Sunday.
"Our car was actually tight, so we haven't seen that problem," Tony Sr. said.
In fact, aerodynamics wizards in the Cup garage say that this year's cars actually have more rear downforce than last year's cars -- if a team knows what to do with the nose, to get it down close to the track.
"We had two different styles of body here," Tony Sr. said. "But the one we thought was best ran ninth [Earnhardt] and the other one [Waltrip] ran sixth. So we'll have to study that and figure out which way we want to do."
Has other options
But that may be coming too late, because Waltrip -- a two-time Daytona 500 winner, and thus quite marketable -- is reported to be under consideration for a ride with Chip Ganassi, if DEI doesn't renew his contract.
Despite his uncertain future, Sunday's run left Waltrip jubilant: "I was here a year ago testing, and I write notes on my racing, and you would have put me on suicide watch if you would have read those," Waltrip said. "We were doing nothing right. We got the 'Lucky Dog' twice and finished 20th. We ran like terrible.
"But when I left this test a week ago I knew we'd be right. Shoot, I thought I could win."
Shorter tracks next
It's not clear whether Sunday's aerodynamics and chassis techniques will translate to the tour's next stops, the shorter tracks at Phoenix and Richmond, sandwiched around Talladega.
The next intermediate track will be Charlotte, with the all-star race and the Coca Cola 600.
"I'd have to say we're not far off," Waltrip said. "I love Charlotte; we ran second in the 600. And my team [then working for Earnhardt] won the last two Phoenix races, and I finished fifth there in 2003.
" I'm pretty confident about the things we've got going and the things we've got coming up."
Tony Eury Jr. was thrilled just to be in the fight for a change.
"Greg Biffle was probably half-a-tenth better than us all day," he said.
Gamble didn't work
So Eury gambled, "and over-adjusted and made Michael too loose. I didn't really go after some major adjustments I should have when it became overcast. It's my fault I didn't have the car the way he needed it."
Earnhardt says he's still having trouble getting a handle on the new softer tires.
"When we changed tires, it changed the way the car drove every time. That's real frustrating," Earnhardt said. "It was like they were putting a different set of tires from a different track every time.
"I wish the Goodyear engineers would get with us and show us how to keep that from happening."