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Earnhardt Jr. Says He Likes Being On The Hook

Deb Williams | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 25 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says team owner Rick Hendrick made a good choice when he paired the driver with crew chief Steve Letarte last year. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

CONCORD, N.C. – NASCAR champion team owner Rick Hendrick really didn’t know if pairing crew chief Steve Letarte with Dale Earnhardt Jr. last year would work, but it did and Wednesday the third-generation driver said he doesn’t want Letarte to change anything for the 2012 season.

“I told him during the off-season, ‘I worry that you’re going to relax a little bit the more we’re together, the more we become friends,’ he might let me off the hook and I don’t want that to happen,” Earnhardt Jr. said during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Steve has his expectations, his rules; this is what you’re going to do. I need this from you. That was good.”

During the two men’s inaugural season together, Earnhardt Jr. experienced something for the first time in his career: Expectations from a crew chief that involved more than simply showing up with a helmet and driving. Now the 37-year-old Earnhardt Jr. is expected to complete forms about each race, provide information on the car and participate in discussions about it in the garage.

“As soon as I got in the truck in the morning (at the track), I never left until the day was over with,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I never did that in my entire career until (last) year. I always went back to the bus in between practices. I was never there early.”

Hendrick said when he paired Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. he “didn’t realize what a cheerleader Steve could be and how much Junior would take tough love.” Hendrick noted Letarte knew when to be tough and

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

when to put his arm around his driver.

“I think a lot of the other guys were scared of him or they would get mad and say something,” Hendrick continued. “Then Junior would get mad and we didn’t go anywhere. But Steve knows exactly when he can pull that trigger and get him in the trailer or ride to the races with him and just work on him.”

It was evident from the team’s performance last season the two men work well together. In their inaugural season, Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed his best performance since 2006 when he placed fifth in the series points. Even though he didn’t possess a victory when the 2011 season ended, he was close on at least two occasions, he had made the Chase for the first time since 2008 and he had collected four top-5s and 12 top-10s en route to a seventh-place finish in the driver standings.

“I don’t think I was realizing my full potential (before getting with Letarte),” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think he made me understand how things I thought were trivial are important to his ability to do his job.”

For Earnhardt Jr., last year was the first time he’d had a crew chief that was “tough” on him since his NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) Series days when he won two championships, 1998-99. Then it was Tony Eury Sr., better known as “Pops”, who oversaw the team. Dale Earnhardt wanted “Pops” to take care of his son when he couldn’t be there and he did.

“Pops is really hard, strict, but he doesn’t want detailed reports or written feedback,” Earnhardt Jr. explained. “He doesn’t need you there early to talk to you. He’s a man of very few words, but when you messed up, you were in trouble; you got your tail chewed off. Steve doesn’t do that, but Pops’ approach is just as effective. Both ways you’re accountable or you’re not going to be there. But Pops is a little more like a drill sergeant and Steve’s a lot more like a cheerleader. Steve is a little more structured. Pops is as good as anybody in the sport, but they’re two different approaches.”

Hendrick believes the Earnhardt Jr.-Letarte team will show its potential in 2012.

“I feel like they’ll win races and be back in the Chase,” Hendrick continued. “I think they’ll be better than they were last year. They made a huge step from where they were to where they were at the end of the year.

“Steve is not going to lie down. He’s not going to accept Junior not being there and Junior needs that confidence that his crew chief is doing what he needs to do and not slacking off because Junior is in a bad mood or he doesn’t want to do what he wants him to do that day. That just rolls right off his shoulders. The respect that is there is unbelievable.

“The confidence level, the communication, I just wish we had put them together early on. I had no way of knowing it would be as good as it is.”

– Deb Williams can be reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

Deb Williams | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 25 2012
One Comment

One Comment »

  • earl lewis says:

    Hes not won in like 126 races? 3 yrs. I could not believe rick h resigned him for 5 more yrs! That was pretty “ignorant”… Rick should have resigned him for a 2 yr term, and if he does not improve, show him the DOOR !!! Hendrick Motorsports has there “Heavyweights”.. They do not need Jr, i like jr, hes my driver, but he needs to be a OWNER, hes not a race car driver…. Hes a better business man, than a race car driver ..