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MOTOR RACING NOTES

Mature Earnhardt Jr. Still Thinking About a Title

October 15, 2006|From the Associated Press

Jimmie Johnson has spent the week steaming over the bump by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Brian Vickers that sent him and Dale Earnhardt Jr. spinning out of contention half a lap from the end of last Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Talladega.

Earnhardt, on the other hand, has taken a far more philosophical approach to the incident that gave Vickers his first Nextel Cup win and cost Little E and Johnson important points in the Chase for the championship.

The trio was running 1-2-3 on the last lap when Johnson made a move to drive around Earnhardt. Vickers, in third, went with his teammate but wound up bumping Johnson in the rear and sending him sliding into Earnhardt and off the track.

Earnhardt wound up 23rd and Johnson 24th. That left Earnhardt sixth, 106 points behind Chase leader Jeff Burton, and Johnson eighth, 156 points behind, with six races remaining.

"The frustrating part is the loss of points," Earnhardt said. "It sure would've been nice to walk out of there with top-five points rather than top-25 points and to be able to go into Charlotte with that momentum.

"I wanted to win that race, but I certainly would've settled for a top three. But it is what it is. I'm happy that we ran so well. Our restrictor-plate program has been under scrutiny the past few years because we're not the dominant plate team that we used to be. That was the best car I've had on a plate track in a long time, so I can't be too disappointed. I was very pleased with the effort."

This is a considerably more mature Dale Jr. than we've seen in past years, and it isn't just because he turned 32 on Tuesday.

Since getting to Cup as a two-time Busch Series champion in 2000, he often has been critical of his own team and had a tendency to become despondent when things didn't go well at the racetrack.

After having a falling out with cousin and longtime car chief Tony Eury Jr. in 2004, Earnhardt slumped badly in 2005 and failed to make the Chase. He reunited with Eury, taking him on as his crew chief, with 10 races to go last season.

His entire demeanor and attitude on the racetrack have changed this year, with far fewer highs and lows.

"It took being away from Tony Jr. for a while for both of us to know how much we care about each other and how much we want to work together," Earnhardt said. "But that was just part of it. Last year, with all the problems, I learned that you have to think about the rest of the team too, when they're working their butts off every day."

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Brandon Thomas took over last week as crew chief of the No. 96 Chevrolet driven by rookie Tony Raines, while Philippe Lopez, who served as crew chief for the team's first 30 races this season, will concentrate full time on his duties as Hall of Fame Racing's competition director.

"We've had this plan in place since the beginning of the season," said Bill Saunders, managing partner for the team co-owned by NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman.

"At some point in the near future, we want to expand to two cars, move into a bigger shop and continue to put together an elite Nextel Cup team," Saunders added. "Philippe was doing a fantastic job, not only serving as crew chief, but also as competition director. We're excited to bring Brandon in so that he can concentrate fully on being a crew chief and Philippe can concentrate solely on being competition director to further Hall of Fame Racing's growth."

Thomas comes to Hall of Fame Racing from Joe Gibbs Racing, where he's been employed since 2003. JGR supplies cars, engines and technical support to Hall of Fame Racing.

"We felt with Brandon's connection to Gibbs that he was the best candidate," Lopez said. "We've got a great relationship with Gibbs and, obviously, Brandon knows their chassis and their equipment. It was a natural fit."

Raines and Terry Labonte have split the driving duties on the No. 96 Chevy this season. Labonte finished third in June at Sonoma, giving the team its best finish. Raines scored a season-best 11th-place finish in August at Indianapolis. The two drivers have combined for eight top-20 finishes.

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