NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series points leader Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) teammate Michael Waltrip turned test laps at Kentucky Speedway to fine tune their intermediate track programs for upcoming races that will play a pivotal role in determining eligibility for the season-ending "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup."

Earnhardt, Jr., who has led the series standings for five weeks this season, enters this Saturday's night race at Richmond with a 25-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and a 27-point lead over the third-place Jeff Gordon.

Earnhardt, Jr., owns superspeedway wins at Daytona and Atlanta and a total of six top-five and seven top-10 finishes, but has misfired at lower-banked tracks similar to Kentucky Speedway. His No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet finished 35th at Las Vegas and 19th at California Speedway.

"We missed something on the one-and-a-half-mile low-banked tracks for a year-and-a- half now," Earnhardt's Crew Chief Tony Eury said. "Our fab shop came up here a couple of weeks ago and said the track was real smooth. We decided to come and try some things we didn't get to try last time we were here to see if we can improve this part of our program.

"We have Michigan, Chicago and Kansas City coming up and those are places we struggled last year. We're struggling again. We went to Vegas and California and struggled.

"We thought we had the problem fixed after Vegas and we got to California and found out we didn't. Something in this new tire is throwing us a curve on these flat racetracks and we just have to keep working at it until we can figure it out."

Based his 2003 experience, Eury knows that if the No. 8's intermediate program doesn't produce better results soon, his team's chances of maintaining the series lead are slim. "Last year we did the same thing, we took off at the beginning of the year. We didn't lead, but we were in second and third," Eury said. "Then we went to Charlotte, had a brake problem and fell back a hundred and some points. We never got it back.

"We're getting to that same point where we failed last year. With the new points deal that we have, we can't wait until the end of the year to test if we want to be in that final 10. We have to find places we can learn stuff and not waste (official) tests. This is a good place to do it."

He added that the team's fabricators and engine builders will most likely provide the answers to his intermediate track questions.

"The fab shop has been working real hard. We have some new body stuff we've been trying here and a couple other places," Eury said. "The engine shop has tried a couple different engine combinations here and we're actually going to try to run one of those at Richmond this week. We're really not secure enough with it to run it in the 500-mile races on one-and-a-half-mile tracks yet. We're working real hard to try to step the motor program up a little bit. We feel like we've been a little bit behind and we're working hard to get back."

Waltrip, who enters the week 30th in the series standings and 190 points away from eligibility for the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup," predicted both DEI teams will benefit from today's test.

"We've had a good day," he said. "We've been down some roads that didn't go so well today with our set up and we've discovered some things that have been beneficial. I've enjoyed today and I think this test will pay off as we go forward."

Other drivers testing at Kentucky Speedway today included Race Kentucky Motorsports NASCAR Busch Series driver Stuart Kirby and Paul Menard, who drove with Evernham Motorsports.

NEXTEL Cup driver Scott Riggs will join Kirby and Holigan Racing tomorrow and testing continues next Wednesday, May 19, with NASCAR NEXTEL Cup drivers Brendan Gaughan, Ricky Craven, Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray and Sterling Marlin. Kentucky Speedway Executive Vice President and General Manager Mark F. Cassis, on hand for today's test, said consistently strong test activity may help in his track's pursuit of a future NASCAR NEXTEL Cup date.

"There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning facilities, market place and commitment to gain a NEXTEL Cup Series event," he said. "Simply put, Kentucky Speedway is the largest non-Cup facility in the United States, is located in one of the top-five television marketing areas in the country and hosts, without question, more NEXTEL Cup testing than any other facility. We have proven ourselves through performance with three straight 70,000 plus crowds for stand-alone NASCAR Busch Series events. I feel stronger than ever we should go to the next level, and deservedly so. If it doesn't happen in 2005, our team will keep digging for 2006."

~ Kentucky Speedway ~