The plan in 1997 was to enter Dale Jr. in seven races under the Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) banner to continue his progression and determine if he was cut out for NASCAR Nationwide Series competition. Tackling some of the circuit's tougher venues would not only provide a good test, but if Dale Jr. proved capable, it would preserve his rookie status for a possible full-season slate in 1998. Junior drove the No. 31 Chevrolet in races at Nashville, Watkins Glen, Gateway and Michigan. He finished seventh in the Aug. 16, 1997, Detroit Gasket 200 at Michigan to earn his first top 10. He was not to race again until Charlotte some six weeks later, but Dale Earnhardt Sr. received a call from team owner Ed Whitaker asking if Junior could drive his No. 7 Chevrolet at Bristol and Fontana. Tony Eury Sr., a lifelong friend of Earnhardt and crew chief at DEI, cautioned Dale Sr. that putting Junior in those two races on top of the seven he already was scheduled for would put him over the maximum number a driver could enter without losing his rookie status. "We won't be able to run for Rookie of the Year," said Eury. Dale Sr. replied, "Tony, who won rookie of the year in the series last year?" Eury replied, "Heck, I have no idea." Dale Sr. said, "Exactly." With Eury as his crew chief, Dale Jr. qualified second at Bristol in Whitaker's No. 7 Church Brothers Chevrolet and led 22 laps. Although he finished 22nd, it was his best performance. Five weeks later at Fontana, Junior started 11th but handling issues forced an early exit en route to a 34th-place finish. Junior ended the year competing in a total of eight races, not nine, as a practice crash at Charlotte damaged his one and only race car, preventing him from racing that weekend.