After injury lull, Junior and DEI rolling

LOUDON, N.H. -- The last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced at New Hampshire International Speedway he was in pain and frustrated.

Things are a lot better for both Junior and his Dale Earnhardt
Inc., team heading into Sunday's Sylvania 300, the first race of
NASCAR's new 10-man, 10-race championship playoff.

He's completely healed and free from the pain he endured after
being burned on the neck and legs on July 18 in a crash during a
California sports car event. Plus Earnhardt is one of the Cup title
contenders and his team appears to be clicking on all cylinders
just at the right time.

"As I got better, our runs got better and the team got better
and our communications and morale and everything got better,''
Earnhardt said. "When I was unplugged from the situation because
of the injuries, it really set a definite tone there within the
shop and the team that something was missing and there was a void

"It showed in the way the cars drove. When I got back in the
cars, I didn't even want to drive them they were so bad.''

The worst weekends were here the week after the crash and the
following week at Pocono.

At the New Hampshire event, the hurting Earnhardt chose to skip
qualifying and let his Busch Series driver Martin Truex Jr. put the
car in the field. Earnhardt started the race -- which he had to do
to get the points -- but Truex took over after 60 laps and drove to
a respectable 31st-place finish in his Cup debut.

At Pocono, it was John Andretti who relieved Earnhardt and
brought the car home 25th, although Junior insisted it wasn't the
pain that was the problem that day.

"I could have run the rest of the way, but the car was so bad,
there was no use in me being in there wasting my time,'' Earnhardt
said at the time.

Since then, Earnhardt has stayed in the car and has come up with
a win at Bristol and two other top-five finishes in five starts.

"I still don't think we're as good as we were when the season
starts, but we've got enough time to put it together and race by
race we'll try to do that. ... Relatively, we're still a young team
and making a lot of changes and having a lot of jelling and stuff
to do. Hopefully, we'll perfect it one of these days.''

Circular thinking
As Mark Martin's No. 6 Ford went into a spin last
week at Richmond International Speedway, the veteran racer didn't
have time to think about how the next few moments could decide
whether or not he made the 10-man title chase.

"Instead of thinking, 'Oh, Lord, I'm going around,' I thought,
'What can I do to escape unscathed,' " Martin said.

"My first thought was 'If I get this thing all the way around
and keep it rolling face forward, that's my least chance of getting
it tore up.' That's really what I focused on,'' added the four-time
Cup runner-up, who managed a complete 360-degree spin and kept the
Taurus headed in the right direction.

Martin went on to finish fifth with what he called "a
15th-place car,'' locking up a spot in the championship playoff.

"That was a brilliant race,'' Martin said. "You probably
didn't realize watching it that the performance was off on that car
as much as we did. (Crew chief) Pat (Tryson) knew and I knew that
we weren't as good as we needed to be and we raced hard all night
and had the breaks go our way.''

Martin, eighth in the points, is expecting everybody to continue
racing like they always do, at least through the first few races of
the championship battle.

"The worst-case scenario would be that people drive like they
drive in the all-star race (at Charlotte) and that's not bad,'' he
said, laughing. "Or like they drove at Richmond, which is not bad.
I think we can live with it.

"I really think that everybody is as aggressive as they feel
comfortable. I think everyone's aggression level is usually at
their max comfort level all the time. I know mine is.''

Fenway in future
Ricky Craven is looking for a new ride, but he
does have a contingency plan if one doesn't pop up before next
week's Cup race at Dover.

"If we can't be driving a race car next weekend, the plan is to
be at Fenway (Park),'' Craven said as the PPI Motorsports team
prepared his No. 32 Chevrolet for Sunday's race. "We're working on
getting some tickets. If we can't be driving a race car, then we'll
be rooting for the Red Sox.''

Craven, a local favorite from Newburgh, Maine, is in the
somewhat uncomfortable position of being brought back by PPI team
owner Cal Wells III for a curtain call in front of the home fans
after being fired.

It was announced in July that Craven would not be back with the
team in 2005. Then, early this month, Craven was replaced in the
cockpit by Busch Series regular Bobby Hamilton Jr., who drove the
Tide-sponsored car in the races at California Speedway and Richmond
and will be in the car the rest of the way after Sunday.

Other than finding a ride for the truck race this weekend at
NHIS, Craven has nothing else lined up.

"At the end of the day, both Cal and I would agree that we've
done more good for each other than we have had disappointment. It
doesn't always have to end ugly. This is a good opportunity for us
to finish it the right way and at my home track.''