Earnhardt back as leader of the pack

Posted: Monday, March 15, 2004

HAMPTON, Ga. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his team are finally growing up.

A week after he nearly was parked for running too slow, Junior zoomed by Jeremy Mayfield with 15 laps to go and sprinted to an easy victory Sunday in the Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

He also won the season-opening Daytona 500.

''Last week was as bad as it ever gets,'' Earnhardt said. ''But we didn't get on each other too bad, and we stayed pretty focused.''

That mentality is something new for him and his top two crewmen, the father-son tandem of Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr., who are longtime friends of the Earnhardts. Their relationship runs hot and cold, and in the past, when things didn't go well, the disagreements were legendary.

''In the past, me and Tony Jr. would have ensued into a hellacious cussing match,'' Earnhardt said. ''We would have really been at each other's throats. And Tony Sr. probably would have punched me in the face. It would have just been nasty.''

This year, it's different. The finger-pointing was kept to a minimum, and all worked hard for improvement at Atlanta.

''I'm just real proud,'' Earnhardt said. ''Last year, we would have self-destructed.''

Rookie Kasey Kahne was third his third straight finish in the top three and Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman followed him across the finish line.

Defending series champ Matt Kenseth, who had won the past two races, rallied from a lap down to finish sixth.

At Las Vegas last Sunday, Earnhardt started 26th and quickly drifted to the rear of the field. His Chevrolet was so far off the pace that NASCAR warned his crew he was right at the minimum speed.

''It was just so hard to go home and face your friends,'' Earnhardt said. ''Everybody on my team was saying they were sick of hearing questions about what was wrong with the car, and I said, 'Dude, I've been hearing it all week.' You just can't get away from it.''

After eventually finishing 35th, Earnhardt and the team spent Thursday testing at Kentucky Speedway. Just as the session was ending, they hit on a setup that worked, and Earnhardt was fast all weekend at Atlanta.

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