Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes on role of motivator for his team

credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs
When Steve Letarte announced that the 2014 season would be his last as crew chief, and that he was leaving Hendrick Motorsports for the broadcast booth, panic ensued in Junior Nation.

Who else could handle their driver so well? Who would be his cheerleader? Most importantly, who else could give him the chance at the ever-elusive Sprint Cup championship?

In 2011, Letarte took the helm of the No. 88 team under the spotlight that glares on anyone that even tangentially touches the life of Dale Earnhardt Jr. With calm cheerfulness, Stevie, as he’s affectionately known, patched up the holes in the slowly sinking ship and steered it out of the doldrums and back into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Junior changed gradually, but dramatically, under Stevie’s guidance.

Letarte required that Junior do more than just show up in time to drive the car. Despite being a two-time champion in what was then the Busch Series, Earnhardt Jr. showed up late to practice and put in just enough effort to get by - and his results showed it.

With Stevie in charge, Junior went from just three top fives and eight top tens with a 21st place finish in the 2010 points, to four top fives, twelve top tens, and a seventh place points finish in 2011. In the 2014 season, he won as many races - four - as he had in the nine previous seasons combined, including the Daytona 500 for a second time and Martinsville for the first time.

Letarte worked on communications, too. During one of his weekly visits on SiriusXM NASCAR radio’s The Morning Drive, he talked about replaying the radio communication from the race and critiquing it, each side telling what worked and didn't work for him. Stevie said that he’d tell Junior his rants over car handling or other gripes didn't tell him anything that made the car go faster. As a result, the tone of Earnhardt Jr.’s communications on the radio changed drastically. Even the way he spoke to long-time spotter T.J. Majors changed.

Junior grew up. In public at speeds reaching 200 mph.

He even made a stunning admission to ESPN’s Marty Smith in an unflinchingly candid interview that’s no longer available online.

“I look at myself back then and thought ‘what were you thinking?’ I had a lot of talent and I wasn’t getting it out of the car. I just rested on my legacy and last name.”

It’s little wonder that fans feared a future without Steve Letarte.

credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs
When Greg Ives -- race engineer for the No. 48 team during Jimmie Johnson’s five back-to-back championships -- was announced as the replacement for Letarte, Junior Nation looked him over like a father looking at his teenaged daughter’s first date, even after Ives guided the popular young Chase Elliott to a championship for JR Motorsports as a rookie in what’s now the Xfinity Series. 

It is seven races into the 2015 season and the jury is still out on Ives, though most are optimistic. Earnhardt Jr. sits seventh in points with four top fives and five top tens. No wins yet, but he’s finished third three times, including in the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway Saturday night. 

After the race, Junior spoke about his and Ives’ relationship. 

“It's good. He's not Steve. They don't have the same personality, not that one is better than the other. Me and Steve became such great friends, so it was like working with your best friend every day.

“Me and Greg are working on that relationship. I've got a lot of respect for him. He's a great family man, and he's ‑‑ we all swap advice, and he's real honest and I trust what he ‑‑ knowing the things he's done to get to where he is, I trust his judgment.

“I need that relationship. That's a relationship I want to have with my crew chief. I want to be best friends. I want to be good pals. I want to enjoy working together, look forward to ‑‑ I need things to motivate me to make the racing enjoyable. When that relationship is really good, it really, really ramps everything else up, and it's going great.”

Junior added, “He's putting together some great cars. I know he's doing that. He's doing some great things and I'm glad to have the opportunity to work with him early in his career because he's really great.”

“He's one of the best crew chiefs, I think, in the garage.”

So what about the cheerleader everyone thought Junior needed? In listening to the scanner over these few races, he seemed to have taken on that role himself. With a few exceptions, it’s seemed like Earnhardt Jr.’s been doing much of the reassuring.

He didn’t agree, though, that he’s been more of a cheerleader than Ives.

“I think that he ‑‑ he actually does a good job of saying a thing or two about ‑‑ like tonight, we had a couple good restarts, and he's like, man, you're making a lot of people proud of here what you're doing out there, working hard, we see it and we're real proud of you.There's been moments away from the spotlight where he's put his arm around me and said, man, we're going to fix this or this is going to get better, trust me.” Junior said.
 
“I don't really know what goes on inside the pit box right now with Greg. I don't have a lot of experience being in the pits with him. But I think he's a great leader, and like I say, our relationship is getting better and better.”

Then came a critical revealing admission.

“The cheerleader that Steve was was really, really good, but it also let me off the hook a lot," Earnhardt Jr. said. "And now working with Greg, I've got to be more accountable for carrying my own emotions and taking care of myself."
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LJ Cloud, aka Lisa or Janine, lives in Houston and considers Texas Motor Speedway her home track. A fifth-generation Texan, she began watching NASCAR in 1997, followed by almost every other form of motorsports from F1 to lawnmower racing.
She's been a part of the Skirts and Scuffs team since May 2011, beginning as a contributor, then became a media rep, photographer, and associate editor covering both NASCAR and the Verizon IndyCar Series.
LJ's other interests include photography, writing, reading, natural health, history, and genealogy. She works for Family Tree DNA, a company that performs DNA testing for genealogical research. 

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