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Gordon, Earnhardt seek new beginnings

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The two Nextel Cup stars both changed crew chiefs during the 2005 season.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The slate is wiped clean for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, two drivers temporarily sprung from the shadows of their mortifying 2005 seasons.

They were failures. Busts. A pair of chumps ineligible to race for the biggest prize in NASCAR.

All that was erased the moment they drove through the gates at Daytona International Speedway. This track belongs to Earnhardt and Gordon -- they've combined for 20 wins here in various events, including the past two Daytona 500s.

Now they'll both try to kick-start the 2006 season with strong runs in today's season-opening event.

Gordon has no doubt he'll be strong.

"I think anybody that feels like we've slipped on the restrictor-plate tracks hasn't seen restrictor-plate racing for the last couple of years," Gordon said. "I mean, I think that no matter what our seasons are like, what's happening with our team, we always seem to be pretty steady at restrictor-plate tracks."

Gordon won Daytona last year -- his third 500 title -- only to see his season fall apart just a few months later. The four-time series champion with 73 career victories struggled through the summer and found himself shut out of the Chase for the Championship.

Gordon wound up 11th in the standings, his lowest points finish since he was 14th during his 1993 rookie season.

His Hendrick Motorsports team didn't waste any time turning its attention to 2006, replacing crew chief Robbie Loomis with newcomer Steve Letarte for the final 10 races of last year. The move put Gordon ahead of schedule when he arrived at Daytona, and he proved it by placing second in the 500 time trials, then running away with a dominating victory in one of the qualifying races.

Earnhardt used a similar strategy, reuniting with former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. late last year after the two spent the season apart in a swapping of crews at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

The move made Junior an also-ran most of last season, just a shell of his former self at Daytona and Talladega, the two places he was always a guaranteed contender.

But with Eury back as his leader, Junior's back among the favorites for the Great American Race.

"Working with Tony Jr. is going to be a lot of fun, there's a good, close bond there," Earnhardt said.

It has done wonders for Earnhardt's confidence. He had pretty much written off his title chances at the midpoint of last season, but heads into today's race confident that he'll be there at the end of the event and at the end of the year.

"I think we're going to come into the Chase being top three in the points," he boasted. "We'll have six or seven wins this season, if not more. If we lose the championship, it won't be by much."


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