"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.

The Right Approach

One of the biggest changes we made last year was to improve our communication on and off the track. It used to be a big huddle where we'd all talk in the garage--everyone all at once. Everyone had their opinions, most of them were good, but it would cause us to lose focus.

Now, I talk directly with Tony Jr. about the car during practice and on the radio during the races. He and I talk about what the car is or isn't doing, and then he goes to his dad and the guys on the team to work on making the car better. We also decided that Tony Jr. would give up his spot as the front tire changer on the pit stops. He likes to brag about how fast he was as an over-the-wall guy, but now he can sit on that comfortable seat on top of the pit wagon, and he can concentrate on talking with me and making the correct changes to the car during the race. It means he no longer has five different jobs on race day, and he's been making much better decisions ever since.

Am I happy with our season so far? Yes. Am I satisfied? No.

No matter how the season ends, there are always going to be "what if..." moments. At this point in the year, the Daytona 500 is still something that bothers me and bothers the team. We felt like we had that race in the palm of our hand, and for something as simple as an alternator to fail, it still gnaws at us. I am so happy for Michael and his team--it was great that a DEI car won the Daytona 500, but I still believe we would have come back and won that race if it hadn't ended early. That one stands out--and there will be more through the season, I'm sure. I've made some mistakes, and the team has made some mistakes on pit lane, but the difference is that we've stuck together, we've never given up, and we have been able to recover.

The best example of how we have grown as a team might be the race at Martinsville. We had been fast all day, and we were up front on a late restart. A lapped car had a problem and almost ran me into the wall. There was some colorful language on the radio, but Tony Jr. kept telling all of us to think of the big picture. We all kind of calmed each other down, and we recovered enough to finish third. It wasn't the win we thought we deserved, but it was a strong day in the points for us. In the past, I might have bit through the steering wheel trying to fight back to the front, and I drove my butt off to get back to third place, but it was a successful day in the end.

On second thought, maybe an even better example is the win at Talladega. We were at the back of the field when the big crash happened, and I managed to avoid most of it, but I smashed the nose of the car somewhere among the smoke and mayhem. We made 17 pit stops that day to fix and repair that nose--and we ended up winning the race. Now, that's the attitude we take into every race. Whatever it takes, we'll do it. I know a lot of people still bitch about the yellow-line thing--but even if we would have been penalized, I would have still been proud of my team, my driving, and how we overcame some serious problems early on to have a shot at winning it at the end.

My View so far

The season has been fun for me for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is because I have become a team owner in the Busch Series. I love being behind the wheel--and winning two Busch Series races so far as a driver for my own team was pretty cool--but I have really enjoyed being on the pit box while someone else drives that Chance2 car. I used to tease Tony Jr. that when something bad happened in the race, I had to go back out there in that hot car and fight back, while he got to relax with a cold drink in the pits.

Now I know how far that is from the truth. It has helped me understand things as a driver to see a race from the point of view of the crew. I think it will continue to be fun for me to learn about the business of running a team, but mostly I think it will help me become a better driver in the long run.

While this is being written, I'm in second place in Winston Cup points behind Matt Kenseth. I get asked a lot about racing with Matt, and it is always a blast to race against him. Matt has a knack of getting as much as possible out of what his car can provide that day. He has a great crew, so that means he is almost always in the Top 5 or Top 10 when the day is done. He and I have been friends since our Busch Series days, and it seems like even though we're rivals right now for the No. 1 position, we've become closer than we have been in years past. Our careers have been kind of parallel since 1998, and it's almost like old times now. We talk quite a bit because we are going through the same things. "What's your car doing?" or "How do you handle this or that?" seem to be what we're always asking each other.

I would say Matt is unquestionably one of the top three drivers--if not the best driver--out there right now. But don't ask me to rank the rest of them above or below that. I mean, everyone at this level is at the top of the sport, but to race week after week with guys like Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte--guys that I respect, like, and admire--is pretty cool. Tony Stewart? Man, he can get up on that wheel. But then, so can the rest of the Top 10, or 15, or even 20. Jimmie Johnson? Wow--he keeps getting better. Ryan Newman? Kurt Busch? They're all tough, tough, tough--and it seems like it's going to be a lot of years of having to beat those guys to get anywhere near the top.

It's not the end of the world if we don't win the championship this year, but it damn sure may feel like it! I think we can continue to improve in all areas of our team, and we still need to overcome some weaknesses--like Rocking-ham and the road courses--but that list gets shorter every year. When we get those mastered, then look out!

Win or lose, I'm very proud of what I've accomplished in racing. I never expected to make it this far, and each week at the track is another chance to appreciate how far I have come.

To be able to say, "I am a winning driver in the Winston Cup Series," well, sometimes that's overwhelming. And I can't imagine the feeling of being called "The Champ." It may soon be a reality. This is our best shot.

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