"This is our best chance," I told the guys before the season began. And I still believe that today. All of the pieces are in place, and now we just need to go out and do what we have to do to bring the Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Budweiser colors to the banquet in New York as Winston Cup Champions.

You begin every season with the intention of being the best. This year, for some reason, it felt different. Before I took my first lap in testing, I could see something new in the eyes of my crew. They could see the opportunity, just like I could. We hadn't turned a lap, but we all felt like momentum was out there raging like a storm in the distant sky.

Some of the motorsports media seem shocked at how consistent and competitive the No. 8 team has been. We are the real deal. There has always been a huge media spotlight on me, and on my team. That's been true for a lot of reasons, and not always because we had a driver and a team that could compete for a championship. I have been accused of not having the desire to go out and win a title, but I can assure you that the desire has always been there. Tony Eury Sr. has been my crew chief and Tony Eury Jr. has been my car chief since we won Busch Series titles in 1998 and 1999, and I can tell you that neither of them would accept anything less than a total effort to win every week and doing all we can to win champion-ships. But, no matter how much we believed in each other, our on-track results have not been consistent in the last three years. So, I suppose if you looked only at the numbers, it would be hard to understand that we have always believed we were capable of being the best team out there.

None of us have changed our desire to win a championship, but we have learned a lot that makes it possible for us to be there week after week--not just a few weeks up, then a few weeks down, like we have been in the past.

The Big Picture

Every business and every sport is about people. In Winston Cup, all of the top teams can afford to build or buy the best parts. Even though I think DEI has the best engine program and the best aerodynamics program and all of the other technical pieces, it still comes down to the best people working together to make it all happen. Those cars or engines don't assemble or design themselves. It's not that we're working any harder, but we're working a lot smarter.

It's been a learning process, and we're now in a position to take advantage of what we have gained since we entered five Winston Cup races in 1999. Remem-ber, my team moved up with me into Winston Cup, so we've all been growing and learning together. This is our fourth full season in this series, and I feel like our time is now to get a championship. DEI didn't win a Busch Series title until the fourth season of running a full schedule, so the challenge now is to match that timeline in Winston Cup.

People say I am more mature, more focused this year than before. That's true, but it's not because my will to win is different, or my desire has changed. Each year, you become wiser and more aware of the pitfalls in life. You learn how to dodge the potholes without breaking stride or losing focus. What was fun as a 21-year-old or 24-year-old just doesn't have the same impact now. What means the most to me now is being the best driver in the toughest series in racing. Each year, your priorities shift, little by little.

Things changed a lot last season after I recovered from my injuries from the crash at Fontana. I keep a videotape of that crash and pictures of the crashed car. They're like a testament to a turning point in my career. While I was hurt, I didn't understand how my concussion could impact everyone around me. It wasn't that I suddenly became a better driver after I healed, but I began to understand how I needed to be more of a leader for the team, and even Dale Earnhardt Inc. as a whole. I looked to Tony Eury Sr. as the guy who was our leader, but I finally began to understand the role I had as the driver. Believe me, Tony is still the boss, but I understand that I have a role there, too.

I have to lead by example. My mood or my attitude can have a huge impact on the team. If I am mad or upset about something, that bad attitude infects all of the people around me. So, now I am making a conscious effort to stay positive and keep all of us looking at the big picture: winning a championship.

We really began to make gains last year, probably from early August until the end of the season. We scored more points in the last three months of last season than any other team except Tony Stewart and his boys, who won the title. If you combine the last three months of 2002 with the first four months of this season, we're the team that has scored more points than any other.