Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't win the Nextel Cup championship, but he's still got plenty to be happy about this week in Orlando.
Earnhardt Jr.'s celebrating the Busch Series title won by Martin Truex Jr. while driving for Chance 2 Motorsports, a team Dale Jr. co-owns with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt.
While the cars are prepared out of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. shops, having an ownership stake in the team has helped Dale Jr. learn about the business side of racing. It's nothing he really needs to focus on for years to come if he stays healthy, but sitting atop the pit box during races, he's also learning things that help him as a driver.
"To see [the sport] from that point of view kind of, I don't know, it matured me a little bit," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I realized in a lot of areas how much of a brat I was about my expectations toward Tony [Eury] Sr. and Tony [Eury] Jr. When I see it from their point of view, I can kind of understand a lot of things they're going through and why I can't get everything I want [changed on the car with] the snap of my fingers, you know, during the race or whatever.
"It's definitely helped me understand. I don't know if it's made me a better race car driver, but it's just made me a better person in general toward the people I'm working with and toward the business itself."
And, in a way, driving a second car for the team in a few Busch races may have opened Earnhardt Jr.'s eyes in other ways. When he won at Bristol back in August, he did so with Pete Rondeau as his crew chief. A week ago, Dale Earnhardt Inc. announced that Rondeau would take over as Dale Jr.'s Cup crew chief in 2005.
It's a move Earnhardt Jr. felt needed to be made, but who knows if he'd have felt comfortable with such a scenario if he hadn't already worked with Rondeau?
Of course, Dale Jr. didn't have such grand plans when he first had the idea of starting a Busch Series team. He simply wanted to run the Busch Series races at Daytona and Talladega and Teresa Earnhardt wanted him doing it in conjunction with the team Dale Sr. had built for Dale Jr.
Junior won the 2002 Busch Series race at Daytona driving for Richard Childress, but starting up Chance 2 meant Dale Jr.'s ties to DEI would be stronger than ever. And naming the team Chance 2 was a nod to the past, as Dale Sr. and Teresa formed Chance Inc. in 1994 to field cars that Kerry and Kelley Earnhardt, not to mention Dale Jr., could run on local tracks around the Carolinas.
Chance Inc., though, was put on the backburner when Dale Jr. moved to the Busch Series. But now that Dale Jr.'s just driving a handful of races for the team, it's allowed him to focus on giving other drivers a shot and Truex Jr. was the beneficiary.
Himself the son of a successful racer in the Northeast, Truex Jr. made his mark in the Busch North Series and made his Busch Series debut in 2001. But his first true opportunity to make his mark came with Chance 2, when he debuted with the operation in May 2003.
Anyone wondering if Dale Jr. had made the right choice quickly learned that those within DEI who first pointed out Truex Jr. knew what they were talking about. Many thought the likes of Sam Hornish would make the move to stock cars via DEI/Chance 2, but that didn't happen.
But Dale Jr. said back before Truex Jr.'s Chance 2 debut that he had a good feeling about the driver.
"When you say that name, it doesn't make the impact of a Sam Hornish, or somebody like that, but one thing Martin's got is he's unpolluted," Dale Jr. said at the time. "He's got a good sense about a race car, he knows what it's like to have to work on 'em and really put a lot of effort into it. He hasn't yet been affected by the large crowds or the hype or the publicity. It will be good to work with somebody from the ground up."
And Truex Jr. is understandably quick to praise Earnhardt Jr. for everything he's done for his career. It wasn't until this time a year ago that the decision was made to run Truex Jr. for the title. Initially the plan was to skip some of the standalone events while rushing his move to the Cup circuit.
Earnhardt Jr., though, realized the lessons he learned running two full Busch Series seasons, despite winning the title in 1998, his first full year in the division. But instead of jumping right to Cup, Dale Sr. felt another year of seasoning would pay off and Dale Jr.'s following the same path while overseeing Truex Jr.'s career.
"Who would have thought this a year ago?" Truex Jr. asks. "These guys have stood behind us all year long and we've been through some tough times and have fought back. It just shows how strong these guys are. ... I think we just all pulled together and took on an equal load. We're all good friends and have fun together and that's the biggest thing. We don't put any pressure on each other. We just had a lot of fun this year. When times got tough, we didn't let it get us down and that's what got us here."
Earnhardt Jr.'s just glad things came together to allow Truex Jr. to run for the title. It would have been easy to have run most of the Busch races and a handful of Cup races, but then he'd have nothing to celebrate this week in Florida.
"We just kept on working with Martin and that became more promising. It was almost as if his acceleration and learning curve was faster than how we wanted to build the team," Dale Jr. said. "But as we started piecing funding together from different areas -- everybody that's been on the car -- we got a sponsor for each race. We then decided it was a great idea to run a full season. We'd [initially] only decided to run 22 [races] I believe.
"I could see it in Martin's demeanor that he wanted to run a full season and see what kind of champion contender he could be. I was really glad we were able to do that. Ninety percent of the employees at DEI for many years saw that as an opportunity for them. That's really the reason we began the team in the first place was to give a few more avenues for some of the guys in the fabrication department and other departments a chance. A lot of guys jumped right on it. They really love the choices they made and when Martin runs good it makes it all worth it."
Truex Jr. will run seven Cup races next year as the team prepares to move as a unit to NASCAR's top circuit on a full-time basis in 2006. It's the same path that Dale Jr. followed and one that's proved successful.
Truex is also building a fan base of his own to go along with the one that came simply from his association with Earnhardt Jr. To say it's been a whirlwind year would be a major understatement.
"It's just been a lot of fun," Truex Jr. said. "I've gotten to meet a lot of people and race with a lot of older drivers that I have a lot of respect for and can remember watching for a long time. It's just been different. My whole life has changed. It's been the most fun year of my life. A year and a half ago, I was just building race cars and racing them -- trying to get somebody to notice me and to get a break."
That break -- or Chance if you prefer -- came courtesy of Dale Jr. Now it'll be interesting to see what the Junior and Junior Show can do for an encore in the Busch Series, before Truex Jr. joins his mentor in Cup.
So, just how much help has Truex Jr. received from the more famous Jr. on the way to this year's title?
"A lot more [help] than most people know," Truex Jr. said. "He's got everything I need to know. All I need to do is ask him."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.