Earnhardt Jr Labonte Test At Texas

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FORT WORTH, Texas – Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2000. Bobby Labonte is one of only two drivers to win multiple poles at Texas Motor Speedway, winning back-to-back in 2003 and ’04.

And both are intent on rekindling that type of magic at the 1.5-mile superspeedway this season.

Both Earnhardt Jr. and Labonte had an early opportunity to gain some valuable track time at “The Great American Speedway” as they participated in a special two-day tire test session Tuesday.

Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet, had a pair of top-10 finishes at Texas Motor Speedway last year (9th-Samsung/RadioShack 500; 8th-Dickies 500), but finished the year 19th in the championship and did not qualify for the Chase. The team is looking to rebound strongly this season, especially with Earnhardt Jr.’s cousin Tony Eury Jr. returning as crew chief in a full-time capacity this year.

“I was pretty optimistic last year going into the season,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “The only thing different this year is I have my cousin working with me again. So, there is that comfort aspect and familiarity. It is easier to know what to expect this year, whereas last year, we were optimistic but uncertain about how well we were going to do. He (Tony) is really good at what he does. We are family and just communicate well, even though we don’t always get that right either. For the most part, he is one of the best crew chiefs in the garage. He builds a great race car.”

Labonte, driver of the No. 43 Cheerios Dodge, is getting adjusted to a new ride for 2006. After 11 seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, the 2000 series champion joined Petty Enterprises this year to drive the car team owner Richard Petty made famous.

“It is exciting,” Labonte said of piloting the famed No. 43. “It is real meaningful if you are in Victory Lane with it. That is what we want to do. There are only a handful of cars that have that kind of meaning to it. Richard’s car is one of them. But, it isn’t going to mean nearly as much unless you do something with it.”

With NASCAR’s new testing policy limiting NEXTEL Cup teams to six designated tracks (Daytona, Las Vegas, Lowe’s in Charlotte, Richmond, Indianapolis, Homestead-Miami) at appointed dates during the season, Earnhardt Jr. and Labonte are getting dialed in for the two races at Texas Motor Speedway during the two-day test.

Earnhardt Jr. is hoping the Samsung/Radio Shack 500 on April 9 and the Dickies 500 on Nov. 5 catapult him to the kind of year he had in 2004.

“We won six races that year,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Now I look at our team and we are better than we were then, and that was my best season. I think it is really important to know how your employees feel and that is the basis of your success. That is what we have to pay the most attention to. We (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) do a good job of that. I hope everyone in the company is fired up because I look to have a great season.”

Labonte, like Earnhardt Jr., is coming off a disappointing season, but will look to rebound with a new organization in Petty Enterprises. He finished 24th in the championship last season and did not record a victory. Despite the struggles, it was still a difficult decision to leave Joe Gibbs Racing.

“It was hard to leave where I was,” Labonte said of his departure from JGR. “It was not the easiest decision. At this point in time, I really wasn’t looking forward to a change. But, I would not have made the change if I didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do in my heart. I am really excited about this opportunity and very grateful for the opportunity I had the past 11 years.”

Labonte and Earnhardt Jr. will close out their test session Wednesday with another full day before heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway next week with their NEXTEL Cup competitors for one of the six NASCAR-sanctioned test sessions.

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