Junior Fans Enter Off Week With Fingers Crossed
By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
After years of failed expectations and disappointment, it looks like Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have found the catalyst he has been looking for in Steve Letarte.
The latest crew chief for NASCAR’s favorite struggling driver has seemingly given Earnhardt something he has lacked for at least three seasons – confidence.
For those who follow and root for Earnhardt, it has been tough to watch him constantly down in the dumps and waiting without much hope for better things to come.
Anybody who knows anything about NASCAR and, in particular, the Sprint Cup series, was certain that Junior’s move to the elite Hendrick Motorsports team in 2008 would end his downward spiral.
But, despite Rick Hendrick’s hands-on approach with Earnhardt, trying to give him every chance of succeeding, the combination has produced one win and one post-season appearance in three seasons.
But the results of the first three races of 2010 have raised the hopes of both Earnhardt and his legion of fans.
He began the Cup season by winning the pole for the Daytona 500. But a crash in practice forced
Earnhardt to start from the back and a crash in the race relegated him to a 24th-place finish.
Since then, though, he has finished 10th at Phoenix and eighth on Sunday at Las Vegas, placing Earnhardt 10th in the points as the Cup season pauses for an off week before heading to Bristol.
It’s the first time that Earnhardt has put together two top-10 finishes since the middle of last season at Loudon (eighth) and Daytona (fourth).
It’s not exactly a charge to the front, but watching Earnhardt being interviewed, one can see a change in attitude – a newfound hope. And you can hear it clearly in his voice.
A lot of that is the result of his pairing with Letarte, who was Jeff Gordon’s crew chief the last few years. The move by Hendrick was part of wholesale changes to three of his four Cup teams. All of them have worked pretty well, but this one appears to be have made the biggest impact.
“We’re just doing what we’re supposed to do, I reckon,’’ Earnhardt said after the Las Vegas race. “We didn’t have too bad a car in practice and I just didn’t nail it in qualifying. I didn’t drive good. I thought guys were running on the top and that maybe I needed to run there in qualifying and so I ran there and that wasn’t the thing to do.
“But I guess the best thing that we did all day long was the adjustments. I kept telling Stevie what I thought I needed and what the car felt like it was doing wrong and he was hitting on it every time. We were kind of working together on some ideas and we hit on one idea that was really good and it really woke the car up.
“We decided to take four (tires) at the end and I’ll back Stevie’s call there. It might have cost us a spot in hindsight, but we just need to run good and get good finishes under our belt and keep their confidence and keep my confidence up. Mid-way through the race was the first time in a long time I actually was feeling like I could beat them guys, you know? That I was around. It gave me a lot of confidence today; we just need to keep doing that.”
We’ve heard this tune before after the occasional decent finish, but this time it appears there is more
than desperation behind the words.
“It’s fun in this hauler, man,’’ Earnhardt said. “When you’re running good, everything is easier to do. But I really enjoy brainstorming with Steve and I think having worked with him, I’ve become better at helping him just in a short period of time. But it’s fun to brainstorm with and work with him and I just want to do good.
“Failure at this point is completely unacceptable and I’ve got to put it all out on the line and do everything I can to make this work,’’ Junior added.
Some critics have insisted that the advent of NASCAR’s big, heavy Car of Tomorrow has been Earnhardt’s downfall. But he insists he’s going to make this latest team work, whatever the equipment.
“If it don’t work with (Letarte), I got nowhere else to go,’’ Earnhardt said. “I got no other options, really other than just to race myself into oblivion with my own team and Tony (Eury) Jr. and them guys.
“But I want this to work. I want to be in a CoT the rest of my career as long as I can and I want to be successful and so I’m just trying to work hard man. We’re getting better. It feels like it’s working.
“It’s a fun team; a great group of guys,’’ Junior added. “I’m proud to be a part of it and hope I can keep working well and keep doing well.”
NASCAR is off to a pretty good start this season, with interesting races and improved ticket sales and tv ratings. Continuing success on the racetrack by Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be another big boost for the stock car sport.
– Mike Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments