Under The Spotlight: Performance at Bristol Means More Confidence for Dale Jr.

Photo by Todd Warshaw/
Getty Images for NASCAR
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch definitely stole the spotlight this past weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway with his two-race sweep, winning both the Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series races.
The less publicized story lies in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s performance on Sunday in the Jeff Byrd 500 at Bristol, managing an 11th-place finish after being one lap down earlier in the race.
Not only was this race a successful performance for Earnhardt, but his overall stats for the start of the year have also been impressive and surely surprising.
Earnhardt started from the pole position for the Budweiser Shootout, Gatorade Duel and Daytona 500. He also has two consecutive top-10 finishes, coming in 10th at Phoenix and 8th at Las Vegas.
Although last year’s 7th-place finish at Bristol was a bit more impressive, what should really be spoken of is his reaction to the exact same penalty that faced him at this track just one year ago.
After receiving a penalty for speeding on pit road, then crew chief Lance McGrew radioed Earnhardt saying, “Don’t lay down on me, bud,” to which Earnhardt responded with a profanity-ridden rant.
This year, Earnhardt’s reaction and overall attitude seemed to be much different.
Earnhardt received the penalty for speeding on pit road, placing him one lap down, but was able to catch up and gain six positions in the final run, bringing him close to a top-10 finish.
The scenario this year at Bristol was very much the same as last season, except there is one component that has since changed – Earnhardt’s crew chief, now Steve Letarte.
Rick Hendrick evaluated his situation and decided to make crew chief changes within the organization, basing the pairings on personalities and whom he felt would communicate well together.
Whether in a romantic relationship or a driver-crew chief relationship, one thing is certain - communication is key.
"That's going to be the part that is the hardest and that will determine whether we'll succeed or not, is whether we can keep that going over the entire season," Earnhardt said of his communication with Letarte. "The season is long -- you get pissed off. Things don't go right -- you get pissed off.
"You've just got to get through those points when they happen, whether it be in practice or whatever. The littlest thing, you've got to be able to manage it and not let it ruin things."
When asked about his reaction to the penalty this year versus last year, Earnhardt gave credit to his overall change in attitude since working with Letarte.
"I ain't gonna get mad and holler," he said. "Last year was a hard time. Last year I was going through some rough stuff."
His reaction to this “rough stuff” and radio outbursts with former crew chief McGrew can perhaps be blamed on a number of things, but one thing is certain and that is his current relationship with crew chief Letarte seems to work.
The proof of this is seen in Earnhardt’s patience, confidence and performance.
“I think a lot of people think that Dale and I are very different,” Letarte said Friday at Bristol. “In reality, our personalities are very similar. I think people look at me, look at my approach, and think I’m not very serious and I don’t get mad. The truth is I am very serious, and I get very mad. The difference is my recovery time is very fast.”
Earnhardt’s new-found confidence has been a long time coming and is the talk of the NASCAR garage among fellow drivers, former colleagues and those who know him best.
Some are speculating as to whether or not his success is related to the recent change in crew chief or if his increase in confidence has led him to be more successful on the track – or even a combination of both.
It is even said that Earnhardt’s baseball cap is a direct indication of his change in attitude.
When he first came into the sport, Earnhardt always wore his cap backward, until recent years when he started wearing it forward like most of his fellow drivers.
Tony Gibson, crew chief for Ryan Newman and former crew chief and crew member at Dale Earnhardt Inc., recently commented on Earnhardt’s fashion statement, saying, “If he gets confidence in him, he’ll be badass.”
“Maybe the hat is him saying, ‘I’m confident.’”
Earnhardt had a top-10 car all day during Sunday’s race and was headed toward what seemed to be a certain top-10, or even top-5, finish until the speeding penalty cost him 11 positions.
Although Earnhardt was pleased with the team’s improvement throughout the day, he believed they could have had a better finish if not for the penalty and a decision made late-Saturday to adjust the left-front suspension of the car which caused it to drag in the turns.
Currently ninth in points after his run at Bristol, Earnhardt already has two consecutive top-10 finishes – last year he had a total of eight in 36 races.
His driving record at Auto Club Speedway includes three top-five and four top-10 finishes. He finished 32nd in the spring race last season and 16th in the October race.
Communication, confidence and of course, some luck, are all key pieces of being a successful racecar driver and Earnhardt seems to have all three.
It is often said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” – similarly, where there’s a backward cap wearing Earnhardt, there is likely a triumphant finish, smiling crew chief and even a win, somewhere in sight.
Under The Spotlight: Performance at Bristol Means More Confidence for Dale Jr. Under The Spotlight: Performance at Bristol Means More Confidence for Dale Jr. Reviewed by Unknown on Thursday, March 24, 2011 Rating: 5