Junior wanting championship form

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff

   MOORESVILLE, NC - The 2002 racing season Dale Earnhardt, Jr. topped the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in laps led and miles led. Despite being out front more than any other driver, Earnhardt only won two races, both at Talladega last season.
   "That shows a lot about our ability to be competitive to lead so much," Earnhardt, a two-time Busch Series champion, said on Tuesday at the UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour. "It's just another glimpse of what kind of team we are.
   "I don't feel that I have to do anything, like either we finish in the top five or nothing. But, we should be competitive and we should win the championship. We're that good."
   For the driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet, he's no longer patient in a quest to prove he belongs mentioned along with the top drivers in the sport.
   "I'm 28 years old and I want it to happen now," said Earnhardt when asked about winning a NASCAR championship. "I think winning the championship would be the biggest thing I could do career-wise. It would mean more for me than anything else.
   "Our main focus is racing and winning races. I want to have a good-solid career, but that doesn't mean as much as winning a championship."
   Crew chief Tony Eury, Sr. failed to see the positive of leading the most laps, but talked of how the team let opportunities to win slip away in 2002.
   "Why we didn't win probably had a lot to do with our pit crew," admitted Eury. "We couldn't get off of pit road and it had a lot to do with the wrong calls at the end of the race. We set down at the end of the year and counted up eight races that we lost on pit road, whether it was my fault, the pit crews or whoever.
   "There were eight races that we lost somewhere on pit road and it has been one of our main goals to fix the pit problem. If we fix the pit problem and our new car makes up a little on downforce, we could get more victories."
   To remedy their pit woes, the team changed the two rear tire changers during the offseason and moved a tire carrier to the catchcan positions.
   Despite all the emphasis on racing technology in recent years, Eury says that he and the young Earnhardt are successful in part because of advice given to him by Junior's late father.
   "One thing that Dale always pushed into my head was that a driver would not drive anything he wasn't comfortable with," said Eury. "You have to take that driver comfort into perspective and you have to make him happy. If he's not happy with what he feels, he's not going to run up front."
   Eury says that his driver like a lot of younger drivers no longer are intimidated by the older generation of racing stars.
   "These young guys, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson, are all cocky," said Eury. "They come in and want to run good and they have to please they sponsors to stay in the game. They drive as hard as they can. They make a lot of money driving these cars, but they put on a show. They drive the wheels off of them when they first get here."
   He also has joined in a new venture with stepmother Teresa, where they co-own a newly formed race team named Chance 2 Motorsports. They will enter a dozen Busch Series races this upcoming season with Earnhardt to be behind the wheel in two races, Steve Park to pilot the No. 8 in five races and Busch North driver Martin Truex, Jr. to be the driver in the remaining events.
   It is an effort for Junior to make more decisions and test the waters in being a race team owner. While, it will take some additional time, Eury doesn't expect the driver to lose any of his focus.
   "I don't expect it to do anything but help us," said Eury, who worked with both Junior's father and grandfather in earlier years. "We want to take some of the stuff he learns racing on Saturday and use on our Cup cars."
   That additional knowledge will be key to improving on their finish in the point standings. Despite being amongst the leaders for most of the 2002 season, the team fell outside the top ten in the late stages, a disappointment for Earnhardt.
   Being the son of a seven-time Winston Cup champion, Junior questions if he is held to another standard than his colleagues.
   "Is there another driver in the garage area you feel like has to win the championship this year, are you're going to write him off ?" responded Earnhardt to a reporter's question. "Am I a mediocre driver? I think it's stupid. I've whupped some butt. It's common for any driver to feel like they are the best one out there. That's how I feel about myself. I don't like the fact that there is luck out there.
   "You put yourself in position to win, but we haven't done it. We have made mistakes. We've messed up on pit road and I've done a thing or two to run over somebody or put us out of the race. So, we get smarter. We get more educated every year in understanding what you have to do to get the points. I'm not chilled out into a points racer, but I understand better why things happen. We've struggled through some hard times, but I feel I will do a tremendous job."