The equipment and team help but Dale Earnhardt Jr. says a key reason for his success in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this season is crew chief Steve Letarte.
Since being paired together last year, Earnhardt has scored one victory, 11 top-five finishes and 25 top-10 finishes in 53 races.
Thus, since they’ve been together, Earnhardt has finished in the top 10 in nearly half the races. The last time he finished in the top 10 in more than half the races was 2004 when he was fifth in the points.
Earnhardt’s 13 top-10 finishes this season are already one more than he had last season and equal to the number he had in 2009 and ’10 combined.
While Letarte and his crew provide Earnhardt with fast cars, Letarte also has helped his driver’s confidence.
“Steve Letarte has made me calmer and more productive in the car,” Earnhardt says. “He gets more out of me as a driver and brings the best out of me. I’m better at completing races, putting together full races, not getting upset with the car, not getting frustrated and sort of botching the whole deal or sabotaging the race.
“He’s brought a lot of good things out in me and brought a lot more confidence. I’ve got a lot more confidence. Confidence is half the battle when you’re out there competing. If you don’t have any confidence, you just can’t get anything done.”
That is helping make this a special summer for Earnhardt. He’s often struggled in this stretch of races from June to August, but not this year.
He finished fourth at Dover for his first top-10 result there since 2007. He placed eighth at Pocono for his third consecutive top 10. He won at Michigan for his first top-10 run in his last four races there. While he’s never finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, he was 13th until he was collected in a last-lap crash and finished 23rd. He recovered by placing fourth at Kentucky a year after finishing 30th there in the inaugural event.
“We’ve had a pretty good summer so far, so if we can keep that going I’m going to be real excited about the rest of the season,” Earnhardt says.
As the Cup Series heads to Daytona for Saturday night’s race, Earnhardt will be looked upon as one of the favorites. Daytona is fun again for him since tandem racing no longer dominates that event.
“I think things have gotten a lot better with the rules they (NASCAR) made for this particular season,” Earnhardt says about plate racing at Daytona and Talladega. “We’re racing more, we’re not tandem drafting all the time so your race really is in your own hands, and what you do with it and what you make of an afternoon is really up to you and you alone for most of the event. So I kind of like that.
“That’s the way I’ve always thought racing should be. We never had racing where you were so dependent on another car until we had the re-paves at Daytona and Talladega and tandem racing came around. It was OK to watch, and I think some of the drivers probably enjoyed it, but for me it was just the opposite of a driver’s instincts.
“But, the rules have kind of moved away from that a little bit and hopefully that is the way it stays. Hopefully we will keep going in the right direction to get it to where it’s you against 42 other guys.”
NUMBER CRUNCHING Dale Earnhardt Jr. has completed all 5,027 laps run this season. Matt Kenseth is next, completing 5,026 laps and Greg Biffle has completed 5,025 laps. ... Jimmie Johnson has led the most laps this season at 811. Greg Biffle is next at 527 with Jeff Gordon third at 421. ... Paul Menard has the most consecutive top-10 finishes at Daytona entering this weekend with three. He was ninth in last year’s Daytona 500, eighth in last July’s race and was sixth in February. Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano each have two consecutive top-10 finishes at Daytona. ... Since winning at Daytona in July 2009, Tony Stewart has not finished in the top 10 in the last five races there. Kentucky winner Brad Keselowski has never finished in the top 10 in Cup at Daytona in six attempts. His best finish is 15th.
PIT STOPS Saturday’s Daytona race is the 18th in the 36-race Cup schedule, marking the halfway point of the season. ... Bill Elliott will drive the No. 50 car this weekend at Daytona as Turner Motorsports makes its Cup debut and has Walmart as sponsor. ... Joey Logano makes his 100th career Nationwide start Friday at Daytona where he won last year’s event. He’s had 14 wins, 47 top-five finishes and 77 top-10 finishes in his first 99 starts in that series, making his debut in 2008.
NASCAR's most popular driver has come full circle since 2004
Earnhardt in Daytona, 2004. (by ASP, Inc.)
Sunday, June 17, will be remembered by Junior Nation as they day when their boy finally came home. Much like John J. did at the end of Rambo, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came full-circle, literally, this past Sunday in the Irish Hills of Brooklyn, Michigan.
After 143 races and four years of futility, Earnhardt won the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway and moved to within four points of the championship lead currently held by 2000 rookie classmate, friend and former Busch Series rival Matt Kenseth. It wasn’t a fuel mileage fluke as his previous win at MIS in June 2008; it was, as his old man once said, “an ass-kickin’!”
Since that last win a number of changes, both within his team and with the driver himself, have taken place. Truth be known, the last seven years have been less than productive for the driver whose surname is synonymous with success — as well as the entire sport in which he competes. While he has endured many unfortunate and unfair tags (there is actually a website dedicated to his drought), this dry spell of Old Testament proportions harkens back to the 2005 season.
Many are quick to jump on the bandwagon and bash a driver when he’s down. Those new to the sport that recognize the name but wonder what all the hype is about may not know the story of Earnhardt’s eight-year dilemma. It’s a long road from where he came from to get back to racing relevance in 2012. And this is how he got here:
2004: The ’04 season saw Earnhardt winning the race that took his father 20 attempts at conquering, the Daytona 500. What was a lifetime struggle for The Intimidator, Junior knocked out in only his fifth attempt. He would go on to win six races that season, and not just on the plate tracks that were the domain of what was Dale Earnhardt, Inc. during the early- to mid-2000s.
If not for a fiery accident during practice for an ALMS race in Sonoma — the site of this weekend’s Sprint Cup race — and a slight misjudgment of a pass on Carl Edwards late in the going at Atlanta with only four races to go in the championship chase, Earnhardt may have won the Cup title. There was also the matter of a 25-point fine for an innocuous slip of the tongue during his Victory Lane interview at Talladega, a reminder of how things had evolved in the sport since his late father won his seventh championship some 10 years earlier. Surely, this would serve as the springboard to propel him into the rare air of Daytona 500 and Sprint Cup champion in 2005 …
2005: The season started with a shake-up within the Dale Jr. brain trust. The idea was to end the bickering between Tony Eury Jr. and Tony Eury Sr. – his cousin and uncle who served as principles on his No. 8 team – by bringing in new chief Pete Rondeau. It was a total team swap between the flagship No. 8 and then-driver Michael Waltrip’s No. 15 machines that saw Waltrip’s results improve slightly, but sunk Earnhardt’s into also-ran status. Competition Director Steve Hmiel was installed as interim crew chief after just 11 races, with the No. 8 team winning one race, a fuel mileage gamble at Chicagoland. The rest of the season was a disaster, with finishes in the mid-30s par for course, ending the year 19th in points, well out of the Chase.
2006: Earnhardt was reunited with cousin Eury Jr. once again, and the performance returned — although it was spotty at best. A win at Richmond in the spring was his lone triumph of the year, but he did qualify for the Chase. A second win at Talladega was snatched away on the final lap, when Brian Vickers hooked teammate Jimmie Johnson on the backstretch on the final lap, who then hooked Earnhardt, sending both spinning through the infield dirt. This also began a period of instability at DEI, with more outsiders coming in to what had been a family-oriented and operated race team with its namesake driver going into the final year of his contract.
2007: Things got off to a rocky start before the 2007 season even began. At a preseason test and media event at Daytona in January, RCR driver Kevin Harvick deemed Teresa Earnhardt a “deadbeat owner” whose absence from the track was having a negative impact on the DEI teams of which she was listed as CEO. During this time, Earnhardt admitted that his relationship with his owner/stepmother “ain’t a bed of roses,” but was quick to defend her following Harvick’s comments.
It was, however, a glimpse into the dysfunction that had become DEI, as well as Teresa Earnhardt’s refusal to cut her stepson into the company that bore his name. The 2007 season also marked NASCAR’s first in-race dabbling with the first-generation CoT, and with it came a new set of challenges to compound matters.
Eury’s out-of-the-box CoT tinkering brought about a whopping 100 point/$100,000 fine, as well as a six-race suspension following discovery of illegal wing mounts to the car at Darlington. It was a harbinger of things to come, and it would end up being the first season since his full-time arrival in the series that Earnhardt failed to win a race.
The bombshell that dropped in May found Earnhardt, his sister Kelley and Eury Jr. leaving the operation at season’s end. Earnhardt and Eury headed to Hendrick Motorsports, while Kelley moved to Earnhardt’s Nationwide team, JR Motorsports.
Earnhardt wins the Bud Shootout in 2008 with HMS. (ASP, Inc.)
2008: Earnhardt’s arrival at Hendrick Motorsports was met with the sort of pomp and circumstance as LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwayne Wade in Miami. The group won in their first outing together at the Bud Shootout in Daytona that year, while pundits and prognosticators were predicting multiple wins and a legitimate shot at the championship. Hendrick’s No. 48 car had won the title the past two seasons, and the No. 88 group was seen as a new contender to the throne at HMS once occupied by Jeff Gordon.
The 88 team got off to the strongest start of the Hendrick bunch that year, posting 10 top 10s in the first 15 races, including the now-infamous fuel mileage gamble win at Michigan in June. What followed, though, was the type of flopping normally reserved for soccer games and fat guys at pool parties. Only three top-5 finishes followed the win, leading to a 12th-place finish in the Chase while teammate Johnson went on to claim his third consecutive championship.
2009: Much like the ’05 and ’07 seasons, the 2009 campaign was on shaky ground before the season began. Rumblings that Eury might be on a short leash plagued the team early, while a disastrous season-opening Daytona 500 did little to quell those rumors. The team only scored one top-5 finish in the first 23 races — a second at Talladega, the result of Carl Edwards bouncing off of Ryan Newman’s windshield and into the frontstretch catchfencing.
Eury was removed after a 40th-place run at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, replaced with Lance McGrew. Further compounding the pressure to perform for Earnhardt and the No. 88 bunch was new teammate Mark Martin, who at 50 years of age came back for a full campaign for the first time in three years. The stablemate to the 88 won five races and contended for the championship with Johnson, though as so many others before, fell just shy.
2010: As Ray Liotta, as the late Henry Hill, said in Goodfellas during his downfall, “This … was the bad time.” Despite a charge to second in the closing laps of the Daytona 500 that was reminiscent of his father’s final win at Talladega, things degenerated quickly in 2010. Early in the season, Earnhardt and McGrew could be overheard in a testy radio exchange at Bristol after the crew chief’s motivational tactics by questioning his effort did not sit well with the driver, who knew many were listening.
What followed was finish after finish in the 20s and 30s, and the emergence of a big, weird beard that resembled Ted Kaczynski more than Tim Richmond. His body language began to show his frustration, as did mumbled, incoherent answers in interviews, as he tired of the constant questioning of what was wrong and why he wasn’t winning (as if the past four seasons weren’t enough of a distraction).
Earnhardt finished the year 21st in points, as Johnson won his fifth title. During Johnson’s five-year reign, Junior amassed three wins — two of which were fuel gambles. Of course, Johnson was never in a power-struggle with his stepmother to remain part of the company that had his name plastered on the marquee, nor was he fighting to keep his cousin atop the pit box where he wanted him.
2011: With two painful and wildly unproductive seasons in the books, team owner Rick Hendrick decided that massive changes were required to get the 24 and 88 teams competitive. In essence, Gordon was moved to what was Martin’s team led by Alan Gustafson, while Martin was shuffled to Earnhardt’s team. In turn, Earnhardt was paired with Steve Letarte and Gordon’s former team. Perhaps most importantly, the newly-christened No. 88 team was now paired with the No. 48 group, which had run roughshod over the competition for the past decade.
Early returns were encouraging. Three top-10 finishes in a row from the sixth race of the season at Martinsville (that saw him lose the lead — and the win — to Harvick with three laps remaining), Texas and Talladega. Three different tracks, three consistently strong performances. The Coca-Cola 600 in May marked an ironically unfortunate and coincidentally catastrophic Memorial Day weekend, which saw both National Guard-sponsored cars at Indianapolis and Charlotte lose guaranteed wins on the final turn of the final lap. A gamble on fuel mileage would not pay off for Earnhardt as it did three years earlier at MIS — and thus the drought continued.
As a side note, Martin, who had won five races just two seasons prior, was able to do no better with what had been the No. 88 team the season before, finishing 22nd in points.
2012: Go ahead and feel free to insert whatever cheesy movie quote you want here. Either Burt Reynolds' character Lewis in Deliverance declaring, “sometimes you gotta lose yourself … to find yourself,” or Colonel Trautman’s “you will always be tearing away at yourself until you come full-circle,” in Rambo III. Or just recognize that even the best racecar driver isn’t going to be able to do much with cars that aren’t competitive.
In 2011, Letarte and Earnhardt learned to work with one another, how to communicate, motivate and learn what Junior needed in a racecar. In 2012, the execution of the prior year’s labor began to bear fruit.
Fifteen races into the season and the No. 88 car has completed every competitive lap. Consistent top-5 and top-10 finishes now replace top-25 showings. Sunday’s win was a milestone for sure, but more so a validation of what has been a championship-caliber team all season long.
A runner-up Daytona 500 finish wasn’t just the quad-annual-decent-Dale Jr.-plate-track-run, it was prologue for the rebirth of a driver who slowly wandered off the reservation amid family and professional turmoil. No longer does he retreat to his motorhome and exit the track as soon as possible to beat traffic, he stays to discuss and debrief with his team, as involved post-race as he is pre-race.
Things have changed quite a bit since the criticism of Dale Earnhardt Jr. began nearly five years ago. DEI exists in name only as a way to sell t-shirts and market sponsorship for Chip Ganassi’s racing teams. Meanwhile, sister Kelley, Eury Jr. and Eury Sr. are firmly ensconced at JR Motorsports, fielding entries for Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt in the Nationwide Series. Junior is picking up where he left off in ’04, with a hot girlfriend that everyone now knows about, and he is spared the lame, uninspired “When will you win again?” questions that followed him for nearly half a decade.
And if you really want to know why it took him so long to win, just go back and re-read this column again — full-circle.
Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
To break one trend, Marcos Ambrose knows he’ll likely endure another when the Sprint Cup Series competes at Sonoma in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday in the first of two races at road courses this season.
Ambrose, who won at Watkins Glen last year for his first Cup victory, seeks to break a string of seven different winners on road courses. To do so, he’ll have to avoid the litany of trouble that lurks on the tight, 12-turn road course.
The last couple of races on the Northern California course have featured beating and banging synonymous with short-track racing.
“It is a technically challenging track, it’s hard to make passes,” Ambrose says. “Even if it’s clean, it’s very easy to make contact.
“The drivers understand that you’re going to have to do a few bump-and-runs, and you’re going to have to make contact to win the race. We’re all prepared for that, and we all understand the consequences of that.”
Ambrose, who is 17th in the point standings, needs a victory to have a chance at a wildcard spot in the Chase.
“We still feel like we’ve got a chance to make the Chase if we can win some races,” he says. “We’ve got speed. We just have to convert those speed runs into good results.”
Ambrose has finished between ninth and 14th in four of the last five races. He goes to Sonoma with higher expectation since his racing background is in road racing.
After finishing 42nd in his first time at Sonoma in 2008, Ambrose has not finished worse than sixth since. He led 35 laps in 2010 but lost the lead when, as he was saving fuel, he turned the engine off and couldn’t restart it under caution. A few cars passed him when he stopped on course and NASCAR placed him in the lineup where he regained caution speed. Only seven laps remained and the mistake cost Ambrose a chance to win. That helped Jimmie Johnson win and continue the streak of different winners on road courses.
On the other road course at Watkins Glen, Ambrose has recorded four top 5s in four Cup starts and owns a 2.2-place finish.
Kyle Busch started the different-winner streak when he won at Watkins Glen in ’08. Kasey Kahne won at Sonoma and Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen in ’09, while Jimmie Johnson was victorious at Sonoma in 2010 and Juan Pablo Montoya was first at Watkins Glen. Last season, Kurt Busch won at Sonoma and Ambrose won at Watkins Glen.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane in Michigan. (ASP, Inc.)
ATTENTION GETTER The question was straightforward, leaving no room to hide: “Do you think Jimmie Johnson is better than you?”
“No,” was the first word Dale Earnhardt Jr. uttered after he was asked that question in April at Kansas. “He’s a hell of a racecar driver, but I feel like I’m the best. I think that’s the way you have to feel. I feel that I’m smarter than everybody and I can drive better than everybody and I know a lot of people ain’t going to agree with that, but I feel pretty strong about it.”
When car owner Rick Hendrick heard Earnhardt’s comment, it struck him.
“He had not said anything close to that before,’’ Hendrick said Tuesday in a teleconference with reporters. “He, as a matter of fact, would say, ‘Man, Jimmie is unbelievable, Jeff is unbelievable, Kasey is really fast.’ But when he came out and said, ‘I'm getting the job done, I’m the “A” horse in the stable right now,’ and felt good about saying that, that just showed me that he was at max confidence.”
LOOKING AHEAD Nationwide points leader Elliott Sadler is focused on a championship this season but he also admits he’d liked to make it back to Cup, noting he has “some unfinished business there.”
Sadler, 37, ran in Cup from 1998-2010 before getting a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series in 2011 with Kevin Harvick Inc. Sadler moved to Richard Childress Racing this season when Harvick’s team merged with RCR.
“Of course I want to go back,” Sadler said of Cup. “Have to be in the right situation and right team to make that happen. Hopefully, one day it will. I’m not going to lie, it feels good to outrun some of the guys I outrun on Saturday and turn the TV on Sunday and watch those same guys run in the top 5 all day. I’m like, ‘We just outran them yesterday in the same equipment.’”
NEW LOOK Austin Dillon recently started wearing a cowboy hat regularly. Dillon’s cowboy hat is from the same company that makes Richard Petty’s cowboy hats. So, how did Dillon get on this habit?
“My hero is John Wayne,” says Dillon, grandson of car owner Richard Childress. “I used to watch John Wayne movies with my grandfather while we were out at Montana. Got a lot of pictures of when we were younger, me and my brother (Ty), both going camping and horseback riding and wearing our cowboy hats. I wore it at Texas last year (at) a Truck race. I have a country music singer who is one of my buddies, Tim Dugger. He’s like, ‘Why don’t you wear that hat?’ I started wearing it again. Now, it’s like a regular ballcap to me. I have fun wearing it wherever we go.”
SUMMER VACATION Mark Martin won’t race again until Indianapolis in late July, as he skips the next four races.
Brian Vickers, who raced last weekend at LeMans, will drive the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing car this weekend at Sonoma. Michael Waltrip returns to the seat to drive the car at Kentucky and Daytona before Vickers drives the car at New Hampshire next month.
Vickers already has competed twice for the team, finishing fifth at Bristol and 18th at Martinsville. His remaining races after Sonoma and New Hampshire will be Watkins Glen (Aug.), Bristol (Aug.), New Hampshire (Sept.) and Martinsville (Oct.). Waltrip’s remaining race after Kentucky and Daytona will be Talladega (Oct.). Martin will do the other races.
PIT STOPS With the Cup Series headed to the road course at Sonoma this weekend, there’s a few drivers fans don’t normally see who will be running. Robby Gordon is among them. He’s back for the first time since Phoenix (he failed to qualify at Las Vegas and Auto Club Speedway). Boris Said is scheduled to drive the No. 32 car for owner Frank Stoddard at Sonoma this weekend. ... Points leader Matt Kenseth has scored nine top-10 finishes in the last 10 races, but Sonoma is not one of his better tracks. He’s had one top-10 finish in 12 races there.