Thursday, May 1, 2014

Speak Your Mind: What’s Behind Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s “Spark” in 2014?

Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Kasey Kahne during driver intros at Martinsville
Speedway in March 2014. Credit: Linda Cutone. Used with permission.
There’s no denying something’s different in 2014. This week, a group of Skirts and Scuffs’ contributors and editors speak their mind on the subject of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his 2014 season thus far. We welcome you to join in the conversation in the comment section below.

Stephanie Stuart:

Consistency. That's what's bringing about the spark in Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season. In a career full of ups and downs, Jr. has finally found a place in his life where routine rules, and he's taking advantage of every minute of it.

Gone are the days of Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. yelling at each other on the radio about the car. That's been replaced by a mutual respect between the driver and Hendrick Motorsports Crew Chief Steve Letarte. Week in and week out, the chatter on the radio remains friendly and informative. Earnhardt Jr. has learned to give good information on the setups and his likes and dislikes. Letarte has learned enough about his driver to know what he wants and how to calm him down.

The days of living in his father's shadow as a driver for the now defunct DEI are gone, too. Jr. has found his niche at Hendrick Motorsports, and while the memory of his father continues to live on in NASCAR, Jr. has finally moved on. He's allowed to be his own man at Hendrick. It used to seem like the weight of the world was on Dale Jr.'s shoulders, but now he doesn't try to carry as much.

He's found consistency off the track as well, in longtime-girlfriend, Amy Reimann. She travels with him weekly, standing side by side with him during pre-race ceremonies, and serves up snarky responses to some of his tweets. She's funny and kind — just what Earnhardt Jr. needed in that area. She loves Dale Jr. because of who he is on the inside, not because of his last name or his career. Knowing you have someone like that can do wonders for a person. The change in Earnhardt Jr. has been apparent. He smiles more and looks reporters in the eyes a little more. He's more confident. She brings out the best in him.

Earnhardt Jr. at Texas Motor Speedway in APril 2014..
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
Since winning the Daytona 500 for the second time this past February, Dale Jr. has continued to drive at the front of the field, showing naysayers he is more than just a plate racer. He currently sits fifth in points, with five top-10 finishes. He's a contender for the win almost every week and as we head to "The House the Earnhardts Built," otherwise known as Talladega Superspeedway, you can't help but think Dale Jr. will be fighting for the win come the last lap.

As long as the consistency remains in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s everyday life, he'll continue to flourish on the track. He's surrounded himself with people who genuinely care about him, and he has a team behind him that he knows he can count on. Yes, he still drinks his fair share of beer and has a graveyard of racecars on his property, but those quirky traits are what many have come to love about the younger Earnhardt. If he continues to drive the way he has been so far this season, we may have another Earnhardt add his name to the Championship history books.  

Lacy Keyser:

Since Steve Letarte became Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Crew Chief, Jr. has changed. This change has done wonders for the No.88; what used to be a 20th place car or worse suddenly became a contender again, and he’s also became a winner again which is something everyone wanted to see. Now, I won’t say Letarte is the whole reason here that Earnhardt Jr. has a fire in him again. I think Earnhardt Jr. finally has his confidence back which is something every driver needs.

Instead of a frustrated, yelling Earnhardt Jr. on the scanner, now I hear a peaceful, funny driver. The banter between driver and crew chief is nice and the two understand and listen to each other. Letarte never cracks under pressure, and I think that happy mood is what has sparked a changed in Earnhardt Jr.

In the end, all it took for some change was for the right chew chief to believe in Earnhardt Jr., which is exactly what Letarte did. He believes in the driver of the No. 88 and I think that's why Earnhardt Jr. is suddenly Mr. "Where did he come from?”

Rebecca Kivak:

The Dale Earnhardt Jr. we've seen this year has been a steady evolution of the driver since 2011, when the pieces of the puzzle started falling into place for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver. The biggest piece was Steve Letarte taking over crew chief duties for the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team.

Chase Elliott, who drives for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, has
earned two victories in 2014. Elliott at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2014.
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
Soon after taking charge of the pit box, Letarte helped build Earnhardt Jr.'s confidence, which had whittled away after disastrous 2009 and 2010 seasons. Letarte listened to his driver, and Earnhardt, instead of fighting his crew chief, listened back. The two clicked in a way Earnhardt Jr. had never clicked with a crew chief before. The changes were immediate, with Earnhardt Jr. collecting a slew of top 10s and working his way back up to a race-contending driver.

When Earnhardt Jr. finished out the 2011 season seventh in Sprint Cup points, it was his highest-ranking points finish since fifth in 2006. At that year's Sprint Cup banquet, Earnhardt Jr. said he and Letarte had yet to reach their full potential, and he was right. The two established a bond of mutual respect that has only grown in time, and the results on the track show it.

In 2012, Earnhardt Jr. finally ended a four-year winless streak. He made the Chase for the second year in a row, only to finish 12th after being sidelined for two races after a pair of concussions. During a competitive 2013 that saw Earnhardt Jr. contend for race wins and finish second five times, he entered the Chase as a championship contender and went on to finish fifth.

The dominoes were in place for Earnhardt Jr. to start 2014 with a bang, and he did just that, winning his second Daytona 500. He commanded the points lead for the first three weeks of the season and has continued to contend for wins, finishing second three times in the first nine races of the year.

With Letarte as his side, Earnhardt Jr. has already established himself as a title contender in 2014. It's the duo's last chance to claim that elusive Sprint Cup, as Letarte announced he will leave the pit box at the end of the season to pursue a career in the broadcast booth. A championship would mean even more to Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte after the road they have taken together.

Earnhardt Jr. is also in a good place in his personal life, with the support of his long-term girlfriend, Amy Reimann. His Nationwide team, JR Motorsports, has risen to become the best organization in the series, with wins this season from Regan Smith and young phenom Chase Elliott.

With so many pieces in place, and the season still young, there's still so much more that Earnhardt Jr. can accomplish this year. But it's been a journey that's been years in the making.

Katy Lindamood:

If I had a nickel for every time I’d been asked about Dale Earnhardt Jr. since his Daytona 500 victory in February, I’d be richor I’d at least earn a place on the Sonoco commercial. It’s what 90% of the NASCAR fans I interact with during my day job want to talk about. It’s nice to see fans, who had all but given up on the sport, with a reignited passion. Even those who only follow from the fringes know there’s something potentially magical about this season.

So what’s the difference? Confidence. Teamwork. Chemistry. It could be any or all of these. Or it could just be that finally, for the first time in his life, Dale Jr. isn’t trying to be something he’s not. He’s not trying to carry the fate of NASCAR around on his back.

In March, At Bristol Motor Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. said, "It (NASCAR) definitely doesn't live and breathe on everything I've got going on. It would be perfectly fine without me, but I'm glad to be a part of it." That statement says so much about where the driver's mind is these days and it's a breath of fresh air to hear him say it aloud.

He’s found contentment in his personal and professional life. He’s got a crew chief that pushes him to be better rather than allows mediocrity, a crew chief that demands participation in every aspect of the business, not just showing up when it’s time to climb behind the wheel.

There’s a carefree swagger in his walk. He’s no longer looking at his feet when he talks. He’s taking control of his destiny and whether it be to hoist the championship trophy or not, it looks like Earnhardt Jr. is happy and that happiness is reflected in how he runs on the racetrack. The same thing happens to you and me. Confidence and comfort in our own skin leads to good things and good things lead to confidence and comfort. It’s a circle, or in this case, an oval.

Sometimes the racetrack of life takes right turns instead of the lefts we are more accustomed to. It's during those times we see our true strength in our abilities to dust off and get back to work. A couple years ago a poor finish would have resulted in a decrease in morale for team and driver, now it signifies a starting point for future improvement and a chance for everyone to come together. NASCAR is a sport of teamwork and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s teams, both personal and professional, have finally clicked.

Lisa Janine Cloud:

I don’t remember exactly when my husband and I started watching Busch races, but I remember why - Dale Earnhardt Jr. My husband wanted to assess the skills of the Intimidator’s son. The rookie driver earned his first career pole at Bristol. I’m not sure if I recall watching that race, but I’m absolutely certain I watched the next week’s Busch race at the recently built Texas Motor Speedway.

Junior’s first career NASCAR win gave him the points lead, and he went toe-to-toe with Cup regulars Mark Martin and Jeff Burton, hoisting six more trophies that season en route to the Busch Series Championship. In 1999, Junior made it back-to-back Busch titles with six wins.

Seven races into his rookie Winston Cup season, Dale Jr. drove to Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway again. The scene in Victory Lane that day lives as one of my most enduring memories of the father-son duo. He scored another win at Richmond four weeks later. If the two wins in his rookie season didn't establish him as a legitimate racer instead of a kid riding his daddy's coattails, then his 13 wins over the next four seasons did.

Many of today’s fans don’t realize that there was a time when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was penalized for rough driving - when he had to be told to rein it in, that he was pushing too hard.

Some might think it was his father’s death that changed him, but that’s not the case. Not directly, anyway.  After the 2004 season, after his best points finish of Junior’s Cup career, DEI management, headed by his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, switched Junior’s entire team with that of teammate Michael Waltrip. The results were disastrous for Junior, and they didn’t produce the expected performance from Waltrip either.

In the seasons since, Junior’s only scored five wins, despite his move to Hendrick Motorsports where he was given the best equipment available, equipment that earned Rick Hendrick 11 championships since 1995.

But Hendrick’s gift has always been the realization that people are the most important part of the success equation, and his alchemical pairing of the energetic, optimistic Steve Letarte with the introverted, easily frustrated Earnhardt Jr. sparked a renaissance that gives the mighty Junior Nation cause for hope that their driver might finally win that elusive championship.

Junior turns forty this fall, and he’s finally comfortable in his skin. He has the tools he needs to be a successful team owner and a successful driver, and Letarte’s unstinting belief in his driver has given Junior the confidence he needed to best utilize those tools. Having a supportive woman in his life hasn’t hurt, either, but having a crew chief he can trust has made all the difference in the world.

Anyone who listened to the team scanner during races can tell you about the difference Stevie has made. Junior used to whine, gripe, moan and complain. He used to berate long-time spotter TJ Majors. If the car wasn't right and adjustments didn't make it right quickly, Junior just gave up.

April 2012 at Texas, head down.
Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs
No more. He gives specific, consistent feedback. While his initial reaction may be of dismay at one of Stevie's calls, he recovers quickly and supports the call. He trusts that his crew chief hears him and has his back. Letarte believes he's got the best driver in the garage and lets Junior know that.

The results speak for themselves. In the last 20 races, the team has nine top-three finishes, including the Daytona 500 win and six second-place finishes.

The change in the man himself is immediately obvious in person. In 2011 and 2012, he came into the media center with his head down, chewing on his words. In 2013, Dale Jr.  began asserting himself, looking the media in the eye, not hesitating to assert his opinion. This spring, he’s been open, engaging and funny, sharing personal stories with the media.
April 2014 at Texas, all smiles.
Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs

So, where did this Dale Earnhardt Jr. come from? From about a decade ago. He’s remembered that he’s a champion, and now he’s acting like one.

How will he do the rest of this season? There's no reason why the No. 88 won't be in Victory Lane at least once more this season, and it will take nothing short of a debilitating injury to keep Junior out of contention for the Sprint Cup championship.

3 comments :

What's behind it: Steve, not his g/f. Folks if it was his g/f, then he would have been winning back in 2008, 2009, and 2010. And she was with him.. but just not out front with everyone.

It's STEVE, and what he brings out of Jr, TRUST. That trust turns into BELIEF that he can do it and all of that shows up in CONSISTENCY and on track performance. Mr H. knew what he was doing when he put Steve in charge of Jr. And it has taken a couple of years to get to this point, so I wonder what will happen next year?

Looks like we all agree with you about Steve. You posed a good question as for what will happen next year when Steve leaves the team for the broadcast booth. As for Amy, it doesn't hurt when your personal life is in a good place, too.

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