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Earnhardt Jr. trades carsand outlook

They had been at each other's side, at times at each other's throat, for nine years as driver and car chief in NASCAR's Busch and Nextel Cup series.

Then it became apparent that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and cousin Tony Eury Jr. might be standing in each other's way, that the passion and competitiveness that had pushed them from childhood buddies to fifth in the points standings last season might soon spoil, tearing down their race team or relationship.

So Earnhardt agreed in December to a request from Dale Earnhardt Inc. director of motorsports Richie Gilmore and owner Teresa Earnhardt to break up a team he had once said he would rather lose with than win without. Earnhardt and teammate Michael Waltrip swapped race teams, from their crewmen to their cars to the tools in the box.

Tony Eury Sr., Earnhardt's uncle and the only crew chief he has ever had, was named director of competition, Eury Jr. was elevated to crew chief and put in charge of Waltrip's No. 15 Chevrolet team, and Pete Rondeau moved over to lead Earnhardt's No. 8 operation.

Two days into preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt admitted it was strange watching Eury Jr. two garage bays down, hunched over another driver's car.

"I looked over there today and there are certain things I miss about working with him," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But working with Pete is what I need to do. Working with him in that environment is where I need to be to turn the corner."

Earnhardt suggested he and Eury Jr. had begun "knotting each other up."

"The situation wasn't that bad where I said "I have to get out of here,' " Earnhardt said. "But I wasn't necessarily the guy who spoke first."

The switch provides Eury Jr. the chance to finally run his own team, after assuming more responsibility from his father the last two years. And it takes the business out of their personal lives.

"It made it easier to go, because he has a lot of talent that wouldn't come to the surface because of our mentality and our outlook on each other," Earnhardt said. "I think I had a lot of maturing to do as far as working with somebody else that I was forced to respect, forced to talk to in a certain manner, when I could talk to Tony Jr. however the hell I want. I can say anything I want to him because I knew the next day we're still cousins."

Eury Jr. said he was surprised when Gilmore informed him of the moves. It was only after considering the opportunity that he felt it might benefit the entire team.

"At first I was thinking, "We were that close to a championship and now they're going to bust it all apart,' " Eury Jr. said. "But they're the ones who make the decisions and they're the ones who write the checks. Maybe they'll see how good our team is or they'll see how good Dale Jr. is. It could go either way."

Everyone involved realizes the breadth of the gamble. The plainspoken Rondeau served as crew chief for several Cup and Busch programs at DEI before being elevated to the relative obscurity of a middling Waltrip team late last year. Now he's the most scrutinized crew chief in NASCAR.

"I knew there would be a lot of focus and a lot of outside pressure," he said. "As a rule, I'm not willing to put a lot of pressure on myself to do this stuff. I should just get off the horse if I do that."

The immediate beneficiary is Waltrip, who finished winless and 20th in driver points last year. A fleet of cars that took Earnhardt to Victory Lane six times last year falls to Waltrip's disposal. All they need are coats of blue paint over the familiar red of Earnhardt's team.

But Earnhardt and Eury Jr. stand to win also, for reasons both personal and professional. Staying on good terms has earned Eury Jr. a free seat on the Lear Jet his cousin finally purchased after years of bumming rides.

"I gave Tony Jr. a ticket for every week, so he's going to ride with me," he said. "That'll be cool."

But how far each goes now is their own doing.