Earnhardt Jr. says he and Letarte have yet to reach full potential

Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR
By Rebecca Kivak

After achieving his highest points finish since 2006, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ready to go back to the racetrack.

The sport’s most popular driver, who just picked up the award for the ninth consecutive year, is feeling confident after the progress made this season with crew chief Steve Letarte. Earnhardt Jr. believes the pair have yet to reach their full potential.

“Normally after the last several years, I’ve really looked forward to the offseason and enjoyed the break we had, but this year, I’m really looking to getting back to the racetrack whenever we can because I just enjoy working with Steve,” Earnhardt Jr. said after Friday’s Sprint Cup Series end-of-the-year banquet at the Wynn hotel and casino in Las Vegas.

“I enjoy exploring and finding new things with him throughout the mechanics of the car. I’m just ready to go back to the racetrack and back to work."

“I think it says a lot about our possibilities next year and our potential to have a good season.”

Earnhardt Jr. finished the year seventh in points, his best points finish since fifth in 2006 and his first Chase appearance since 2008, his first year with powerhouse team Hendrick Motorsports.

Letarte was named Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief in a shakeup at the end of last season that affected three of the four Hendrick teams. This came after Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team suffered back-to-back disastrous seasons in 2009 and 2010.

The pairing has proved to be just what the doctor ordered. Since coming on board, Letarte has reinvigorated Earnhardt Jr. and restored his confidence.

With Letarte on top of the pit box, Earnhardt Jr. racked up four top 5s and 12 top 10s in 2011. To put this in perspective, Earnhardt Jr. had almost the same amount of top 10s, 13, in 2009 and 2010 combined.

In his speech Friday night, Earnhardt Jr. was the most relaxed and confident he’s been in some time.

“It’s good to be back at the big dinner again,” Earnhardt said with a chuckle. “Thanks for having me. At this time last year, Rick made some pretty big changes within Hendrick Motorsports, and one of those changes sent to me work with Steve Letarte’s shop. I mention that because working with Stevie and his group is a big reason why I’m here tonight. For that I want to thank them," he said, as Letarte sat in the audience watching. "Hendrick Motorsports is an extremely talented group. We were really competitive all season; we had a lot of fun doing it.”

Earnhardt Jr. continued to sing Letarte’s praises after the banquet. “The communication was the best part. That’s what I believe in my heart is going to help us continue to improve, is how well we get along and how well we enjoy working together.”

Earnhardt Jr. also complimented Letarte’s ability to make adjustments that help the car improve on race day – changes that he trusts Letarte to make. “There’s been so many times throughout the season where literally for the next 48 hours after the race, all I wanted to do was text him and call him and keep bugging him about how great a job he did, and how awesome the car was and how happy I was with the car getting better throughout the race,” Earnhardt Jr. said.

“It’s so frustrating when you’re racing and you can’t improve - and you try, try, and work, work - and can’t improve.

“There were races where the car would just get so much better and being more competitive … He (Letarte) looks at it like, ‘That’s what I’m supposed to do this, it’s my job, it wasn’t a big deal,’ and he brushes it off. But it just really pleased me a lot to have a guy that I could count on top of the box making changes on the car that were working.”

Earnhardt Jr.’s stats this season still fall short of his 2008 totals, which were 10 top 5s and 16 top 10s. But Earnhardt Jr. feels the team is getting there. At the "top of the list" of things to work on is improving their qualifying, Earnhardt Jr. said. He had an average starting position of 19.6 this season, which meant he had to battle more traffic to get to the front.

“To get to where we want to be to compete and win races, we need to get another level, we need to find a little bit more speed," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We’ve shown the potential in the past. In 2008 with Tony Eury Jr. we were in the top 2 in points throughout most of the season. We know we can have that type of year."

Earnhardt Jr.’s last win came in June 2008, and his winless streak has been well documented in the time since. For the first time in years, the No. 88 challenged for wins multiple times in 2011, coming oh-so-close at the spring races at Martinsville, Kansas and Charlotte.

Looking back over his season, Earnhardt Jr. said it was at Martinsville and Charlotte when he realized he had a crew chief in Letarte who could help him win.

“When we went to Charlotte and almost won the race, that’s when I thought to myself, ‘Man, this crew chief I got can give me opportunities to win.’ We didn’t drive ourselves into that position really, we strategized our way into that position through our strategy on pit road. I was thinking to myself, ‘Man this guy, he can put it together, potentially give me opportunities to win races in all likelihood I shouldn’t probably win. So maybe I can win some races this year and get everybody calmed down,’” Earnhardt Jr. said.

“Then we went to Martinsville and we drove ourselves into the lead. Had Harvick not had such an awesome car and drove so well at the end, we would have won the race. That would have been a great day, because I’ve been looking forward to getting one of them clocks for a long time, and winning at a historic track like Martinsville."

“But those were the moments that I realized that I’ve improved, and the potential for me to run well is back. It was a great, great feeling ‘cause I was so upset about how I was running over the last couple years,” Earnhardt Jr. said.

Earnhardt Jr.’s winless streak stands at 129 races. No one is more aware of the time that has lapsed since he’s visited victory lane than the driver of the No. 88 himself.

Earnhardt Jr. said watching the highlights of the year’s winners at Friday’s banquet has motivated him even more going forward into 2012. He wants to win races again and to compete for the big prize, the championship.

“Sitting here tonight, seeing all the pictures and all the accolades that come along with guys that have made it into victory lane - my face isn’t in those highlights, and I want to be there next year,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’d love to be sitting where Tony is, but we’ve got to win races first to have that opportunity.”

At 37 years old, Earnhardt Jr. said he has yet to hit his peak as a driver.

“I’d like to work with Steve as long as I could, I enjoy the relationship with him. I’d like to get to victory lane more often, and get to doing that on a consistent basis. I think I could be much more satisfied with three to five wins a year. I think I’m good enough as a driver to do that.

“And I think I’ll only get better - I don’t feel like I’ve reached my peak as a driver. That definitely comes anywhere from 35 to 45 years, seems to be that range. I feel like I’m right in the middle of that, so I don’t think I’ve peaked as a driver on the performance side.

“I enjoy driving and I want to do it for a long time.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. accepts his 9th Most Popular Driver award from Nathan Tuggle.
Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR
Junior Nation, Earnhardt Jr.’s millions of fans, are glad to hear that. After accepting his Most Popular Driver award Thursday in Las Vegas, Earnhardt Jr. made sure to thank his legion of fans, who may be the most loyal in all of NASCAR.

"I'm pretty sure my fans wear this award as a badge of honor, and so they should, because the award is theirs,” Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday at the National Motorsports Press Association’s Myers Brothers Luncheon. “Their efforts allow me to be here today to accept it, so I not only thank them, but congratulate them on winning their ninth consecutive most popular driver award.”

Earnhardt Jr. beat out the remaining top 10 finalists, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte and 2011 Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart, for the award. A total of 1.5 million votes were cast.

Earnhardt Jr.’s ninth straight award leaves him one short of tying Bill Elliott for the record for most consecutive Most Popular Award wins at 10. Elliott won the award a total of 16 times.
Earnhardt Jr. says he and Letarte have yet to reach full potential Earnhardt Jr. says he and Letarte have yet to reach full potential Reviewed by Admin on Saturday, December 03, 2011 Rating: 5