Earnhardt Tries New Chief

Orlando Sentinel

In the 11 Nextel Cup races this year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has led a grand total of five laps.

That's quite a letdown for one of NASCAR's top drivers and one who appeared primed to win his first points title in the series.

So Junior and Dale Earnhardt Inc. took a mulligan earlier this week, naming Steve Hmiel as the interim crew chief for the No. 8 car. Hmiel, previously Earnhardt's spotter, will make his debut in his new position as Earnhardt tries to get his first win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Sunday.

The Cup's postseason chase races don't begin until Sept. 18, but Earnhardt said he needs to get rolling soon.

"With all the summer to learn and gain more knowledge and get faster and get more competitive, hopefully by that point, we'll be a strong enough team to put up a fight for it," Earnhardt said.

Hmiel's appointment marked the abrupt conclusion to Pete Rondeau's stint as crew chief. At the end of the 2004 season, Rondeau moved from his job as Michael Waltrip's crew chief to take the same position with Earnhardt's team. Tony Eury Sr., Earnhardt's uncle and crew chief before Rondeau, became director of competition for DEI. Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's cousin and previous car chief, took over as Waltrip's crew chief.

Earnhardt holds out a sliver of hope that he can win the title.

"It doesn't really matter where you are in the Chase," Earnhardt said.

"With what Kurt [Busch] did last year -- he kind of came from the back burner to win the thing, so I think we've got a good-enough team to make it."

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