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Childress has new Earnhardt

An Earnhardt will drive for Richard Childress Racing again this season. Less than a month before the storied team commences its 36th season, that fact was enough to conjure fond memories from the team owner who won 67 races and six titles with the late Dale Earnhardt.

Childress announced Wednesday that Kerry Earnhardt, 34, Earnhardt's oldest son and the brother of Nextel Cup regular Dale Jr., will drive five Nextel races in a No. 33 Chevrolet developmental car.

"Having an Earnhardt back in an RCR car is enough to give me chills," Childress said during a media tour stop at his shop.

Earnhardt is scheduled to race on April 25 and Oct. 3 at Talladega, May 22 at Concord, N.C., in the NASCAR All-Star Challenge and July 3 at Daytona.

"Outside of (Dale Earnhardt Inc.), RCR is my next choice of where I'd want to go," Kerry Earnhardt said. "This is a great opportunity for me. These guys run real well and win races so I think I can learn a lot."

Kerry Earnhardt had his only Winston Cup start at Michigan on Aug. 20, 2000. Since 1998 he has 65 Busch Series starts and 11 in ARCA.

"Dale and I had talked about it," Childress said. "We wanted to give him the same opportunity that he gave Dale Jr."

CALM DOWN: RCR's Kevin Harvick was climbing the standings toward eventual champion Matt Kenseth last season when a crash at Richmond ended his hopes and sparked a nasty confrontation with Ricky Rudd after the race. Harvick does not think that having the .75-mile track host the regular-season finale in the new playoff format could possibly increase intensity.

"I think you all know what my intensity level is," he said, joking. "If I get any more intense I'll need a spare heart."

WORKING: A tumultuous offseason for Craftsman Truck Series veteran Bill Lester has ended with a new ride in one of Bill Davis Racing's Toyota entries. Lester is more eager for this season to begin than most.

"It was an anxious winter," said Lester, who was 14th in driver points last season for Bobby Hamilton Racing. "I was pushing the button real hard to land with Toyota and it looks like it's all worked out."

Lester, NASCAR's only regular African-American driver, lost his job at the end of last season when Dodge canceled its diversity program.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: Toyota's entry this season into the NASCAR truck series has made current manufacturers Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge very nervous. Its methodology _ bringing information-sharing, development and manufacturing into one fold _ allowed it to dominate both CART and the Indy Racing League within a year of entering.

Toyota Research and Development group vice president Lee White said his company is interested solely in racing trucks _ for the time being.

"In my opinion, the truck series is the manufacturers' shootout in racing," he said. "(The other manufacturers) are not about to back away and let us have it. Someday we'd like to be in (Nextel) Cup. If we do, we will have reached our objectives in the truck series."

Among seven Toyota drivers will be Zephyrhills' David Reutimann, whose No. 17 entry for Darrell Waltrip will be sponsored by NTN Bearings.

LAST IS NICE: They were dancing in the office hallways at Homestead-Miami Speedway after the news that NASCAR would institute a 10-race "Chase for the Championship." As host of the final Nextel Cup race of 2004, the track is almost guaranteed of a points battle right down to the final few laps of the Ford 400.

"Obviously, this is very exciting for us," said Curtis Gray, president of the 1.5-mile, high-banked oval. "I think the racing strategy will change a little bit when it gets close to the 26th race, and then of course for the final 10 races."

In other words, the SAFER "soft-wall" system the track installed in its recent upgrade could get quite a workout.

_ BRANT JAMES, TIMES WIRES

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