Showing posts with label Steve LeTarte. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steve LeTarte. Show all posts

Friday, October 10, 2014

It's Far From Over For Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr's. crew works hard during the Kansas race. Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s season started with winning his second Daytona 500, and then back-to-back second-place finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas. The No. 88 team ended their season last year on a high note, and it appeared they were picking up right where they left off. Earnhardt Jr. even managed to sweep both Pocono races, which only added more fuel to the championship talk.

As of late, Earnhardt Jr. hasn't shown the same racing prowess as earlier in the season. In four Chase races he's only earned one top-10 finish. Has something changed or is the 88 still a contender for the Sprint Cup?

Last weekend at Kansas, Earnhardt Jr. wheeled the same chassis that earned the wins at Pocono and, after weeks of lackluster performances, finally had competitive speed.

When he took the lead on Lap 77, Earnhardt Jr. outran Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick in a dicey three-wide battle. It was the first laps he had led since Michigan in August. Earnhardt Jr. looked to have found the speed he was lacking.

But while still leading on Lap 122, a flat right front caused Earnhardt Jr. to suddenly slam into the wall and retire to the garage. With 80 laps remaining, Earnhardt Jr. returned to the track many laps
Earnhardt Jr. wins at Pocono. Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images
down, ending his day 39th.

Earnhardt Jr. also encountered calamity early in the 2013 Chase. He had an engine failure in the Chase kickoff race at Chicagoland Speedway. This dropped him to 12th in the Chase. But Earnhardt Jr. bounced back over the next few races. From being last in the points standings, he managed to finish a career-high fifth.

With that in mind, could it be that maybe Earnhardt Jr. works better under pressure? Comparing last year with this year, maybe the No. 88 performs better when all the cards are on the line. With only two races left before the next elimination, it's go or go home time.

The next race for Earnhardt Jr. is Charlotte, where he has five top fives and 11 top 10s. This is Earnhardt Jr’s. home track; a win here could really get that No. 88 back on track to contending for the championship.

On the other hand, Talladega is the dreaded wild card race. Earnhardt Jr. has five wins here and finished second last fall. This is one of Earnhardt Jr’s. best tracks, but it can also be his worst. Depending on where you run during the race, you better hope you avoid “the big one.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Earnhardt Jr. will make the Chase cut and survive another round. Based on what I see from both driver and crew chief Steve Letarte, they know it’s not over. In addition to finding speed, the team is hitting upon the right changes during pit stops to improve the car. But they need to build on their progress and stave off the bad luck.

With two races left in this round, anything can happen. Don’t count out the No. 88 yet.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Faith on the Frontstretch: When Life Gets Wicked Loose, "Choose Your Words"

Earnhardt Jr. & crew chief Steve Letarte celebrating in Victory Lane at Pocono, Aug. 3, 2014.  
“ ... and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Hebrews 12:1b

In the post-race press conference at Pocono on Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. shared how he’s changed the way he talks to his team on the radio. He illustrated with an anecdote from the Go Bowling 400.

During the race, Junior mentioned to crew chief Steve Letarte that his car was a tick tight on long runs, but said he didn’t actually ask his team to change anything. After a pit stop, the car was way too loose, so he knew Steve had called for an adjustment. He said in years past, he might have handled the situation badly.

“I think ten years ago I would have screamed, ‘What the hell are you doing? You loosened me up too much ... quit making such big adjustments!’”

But today he is intentional about being more patient. He reminds himself that his team is just trying to help him and trying to make the car better.

“When you’re in the car and it’s not working, you just carry a lot of frustration and you just bite your tongue ... trying not to be a fool on the radio,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Everybody in the pits and on the box is trying to help you and they’re the only ones that really you can complain to, so you really have to choose your words.”

Choose your words. That’s really good advice.

Words are powerful. Some might say they’re more powerful than a 900-horsepower engine, because words can change a person’s life for the better or crush someone’s spirit. Words, whether spoken or posted on social media, can either build others up or tear them down.

James 3:3-12 talks about taming the tongue. It illustrates how the tongue is a minor part of the body, like a rudder on a big ship or a tiny spark from a fire. But whoever is steering that wee rudder determines the direction of the massive ship. And the smallest flame, left unchecked, can burn down an entire forest. Likewise, James says our little tongues can utter praises to God or spew poison.

When life gets wicked loose, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotion and feel the need to lash out. But according to Earnhardt Jr., when his car was way too free after adjustments during the Pocono race, he chose to not to overreact.

“In that moment you got to stop and say, you know, you just got to drive it,” he said. “Maybe we went a little too far (on adjustments.) We can take it back out. Be patient.”

If Dale Earnhardt Jr. can make a conscious effort to choose his words – while shifting, checking his gauges and watching the rearview mirror as he maneuvers through high-speed traffic – surely you and I can stop and think before we speak.

When you feel frustrated or irritated, what words will you choose?

The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered. ~ Proverbs 17:27
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“Faith on the Frontstretch” appears every 1st & 3rd Wednesday and explores the role of faith in motorsports. Comments or twitter follows welcome: @bbreinke. See you on the Frontstretch!

Want more racing devotions? When you donate $25 to Skirts and Scuffs, we’ll send you a complimentary copy of Beth’s book, Race Fans’ Devotions to Go, a month-long, pocket-sized devotional book for NASCAR fans. Or you can purchase the book in paperback & ebook here.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sweeps Pocono for Third Win of 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane at Pocono, Aug. 3, 2014
Credit: Beth Reinke for Skirts and Scuffs  
In an action-packed day at Pocono, race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. credits his crew chief’s judgment calls as key to his victory.

“What it came down to was Steve’s strategy," Earnhardt Jr. said, "He pulled us onto pit road about four laps short of our window to go ahead and put four tires on and fill it up.”

Four laps later when a caution flew, they did what Earnhardt Jr. called a “two-second” final pit stop for fuel only and then leap-frogged a lot of other drivers.

Restarting after the final caution with four laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. held on to bring home his third checkered flag of the season and a broom to mark his Pocono sweep. Denny Hamlin, in 2006, was the last driver to sweep Pocono.

Earnhardt Jr. wields his broom.
Credit: Beth Reinke for Skirts and Scuffs
Earnhardt Jr. talked about the final restart and going nose-to-nose with Kevin Harvick.

“I was anticipating him being right there on the inside going into Turn 1,” he said. “I was just going to have to really get brave and drive it down in there and pray for it to stick. I drove it in there and we were able to clear him somehow.”

Harvick finished second, with Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle making up the top five.

The GoBowling 400 started with a “strike,” as Joey Logano rolled past polesitter Kyle Larson to take the lead. Seconds later, Brad Keselowski got sideways after contact with Kurt Busch, and his skilled save brought gasps from crews on pit road watching on the big screen.

Celebrating with the checkered flag.
Credit: Beth Reinke for Skirts and Scuffs
Jimmie Johnson needed a spare today, with tire issues ruining his day. He smacked the wall on Lap 8, cutting a tire, but he recovered, working his way into the top five before the midpoint. But what seemed like a second tire problem sent him into the Turn 2 wall, resulting in a trip to the garage.

Kyle Busch had early engine trouble, rolling his No. 18 to pit road as smoke filled the cockpit, forcing the team to push it to the garage. Next, Landon Cassill scraped the wall in Turn 2, radioing in that his power steering was gone, and his car had to be pushed off the track.

Midway through the race, Jeff Gordon added two more feathers to his cap, becoming the first driver to lead 1,000 laps at Pocono Raceway and reaching 24,000 career laps led in the Sprint Cup Series.


Crew chief Steve Letarte celebrates in Victory Lane.
Credit: Beth Reinke for Skirts and Scuffs
The last half of the race got dicey when the No. 11 car of Denny Hamlin got loose and bobbled as Clint Bowyer went by him. Although Hamlin recovered, Brian Vickers was running behind him and took evasive maneuvers, triggering a 13-car pileup. Tony Stewart’s car came to rest propped on the No. 27 car of Paul Menard, but everyone was okay.

Rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon finished 11th and 15th, respectively. Larson sits seven points ahead of Dillon in the points standings.

To see the complete unofficial finishing order, click here.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Greg Ives named crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Ives led Chase Elliott to his first Nationwide Series win at Texas earlier this season
With Steve Letarte leaving for the broadcast booth at the end of this season, everyone has been wondering who will take over as crew chief for the No. 88. Speculation began soon after Letarte broke the news he wouldn't return, but it wasn't until Wednesday that Greg Ives was announced as Letarte's successor. Ives, who is currently crew chief for Chase Elliott in the Nationwide Series, has experienced success during his time on top of the pit box.

Before calling the shots for Chase Elliott, Ives led Regan Smith to a third-place finish in the Nationwide Series standings in 2013. Ives has five career wins in the Nationwide Series: two with Smith (Talladega and Michigan) and three with Elliott so far in 2014 (Texas, Darlington and Chicago). Ives and Elliott are currently the points leader in the Nationwide Series.

This won't be Ives first go round at Hendrick Motorsports. Prior to his tenure with JRM in the Nationwide Series, Ives was engineer for Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team and worked closely with Chad Knaus from 2006 to 2012.

Before the announcement was made, I had a strong feeling Ives would be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s new crew chief. I believe Ives will work well with Earnhardt Jr. and also be able to understand and listen to his driver.

When I listen to the exchange between Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. on the race scanner, I notice that they understand each other and that, in turn, helps Letarte make the right adjustments to the car during pit stops.  I believe Ives will be able to be the same with the No. 88.  Just look at how well he’s been doing in the Nationwide Series.

Ives is an up-and-coming crew chief. If history has demonstrated anything with Chad Knaus, this could be the start of a great driver and crew chief relationship. Ives and Elliott have the potential to win the Nationwide Championship this season. Consider how incredible it would be for Ives to secure JRM’s first championship and then move over to crew chief the boss himself.

However the season ends, I'm looking forward to seeing Ives atop the No. 88 pit box.

Welcome to the team, Greg Ives!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr's. fire burns bright as he wins 2014 Daytona 500

Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images
All the writers at Skirts and Scuffs were NASCAR fans before we joined the site. The love of the sport motivates us. Most of the time we keep our driver loyalties under wraps to tell the stories, but sometimes, when the story is that your driver, the most popular driver in the sport, wins the sport's biggest race for the second time, then it's hard not to shout it to the world. In this piece, Lacy Keyser does just that. Tomorrow we'll go back to the unbiased stories, but today, celebrate with Lacy for a few minutes. 

The Daytona 500 is the race every driver wants to win. Even if you're a champion driver, you still want to win that 500. It took Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Darrell Waltrip 20 years to win it. That just goes to show how much winning that race means.

In 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Daytona 500, and that celebration ranked high on the all-time list. Ten years from that date, Earnhardt Jr. did it again, winning his second 500, which happened to be a prime-time event due to a rain delay.

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
For his fans, it was a beautiful sight to see that No. 88 taking the victory lap, waving to the crowds as he drove by. Nothing gets the NASCAR community going like a win from Earnhardt Jr. The fans love him, and honestly, it’s hard not to like such a genuine guy. Seeing his smile last night and his hugging everyone on his team ... how can you not celebrate?  

Watching the white flag come out and the No. 88 crossing the start/finish line first made everything worthwhile. I can’t explain why, but seeing Earnhardt Jr. win brings a smile to my face. Maybe it has to do with how last year went, a season in which it seemed Earnhardt Jr. was always the bridesmaid but never the bride. He’d finished second in three of the last four of Daytona races, but last night, he was finally the bride.

It feels like Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte are finishing what they started last season. With Letarte leaving for the broadcast booth, getting a 500 win for his final season is poetic; every crew chief wants a 500 win, and Letarte can finally say he has one.

No matter what the season has in store for the 88 crew, I feel their winning the season opener and being Daytona Champions will impact their entire season. Whether or not Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte win the Sprint Cup Championship, at least they can end their era on a high note with a win in The Great American Race!

The season has just begun, but Earnhardt Jr’s. fire is already burning bright.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Goodbye Steve Letarte, thanks for everything

Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images 
When your favorite driver has a crappy season, it’s a horrible feeling. But when your driver has a horrible season year after year, your nerves tend to get shot. Many Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, myself included, were all at that breaking point. 

But luckily for us, we'd receive some great news the end of the 2010 season, news that has changed Earnhardt Jr. for the better, I feel.

Steve Letarte. 

Hearing that Steve Letarte was going to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief was something unexpected. 

After the seasons we had I was hoping this change could be a good one, that having Letarte on the pit box would be something that Earnhardt Jr. needed.

For the first time in what felt like forever, seeing the No.88 contending and actually being competitive was a great feeling; it’s what everyone fan wants to see- their driver actually contending for wins.

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR
Letarte brought back a fire inside Earnhardt Jr. - a fire that hadn't been seen in a while. Last season, the duo had a bad race the very first Chase race. But even with that one bad race, the duo overcame it and ended the season fifth in the points.

For many Earnhardt Jr. fans it seemed their driver had finally found that crew chief, the one that truly was the best for him. But unfortunately sometimes all good things must come to an end.

I won't lie. Hearing the news that after the 2014 season, Letarte is stepping down from the pit box and moving to the NBC booth in 2015 was a little sad to hear. The era of Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. is coming to an end. An end for which I’m not sure I’m ready.

Even though this will be the last season with Letarte I have a feeling that if the No.88 is anything like it was the last final races, they are going to be a force to be reckoned with. I have no doubt the No.88 is going to be a huge contender this season.

Though there's still a season to go, I'll say it now. Goodbye and thank you, Steve. Thank you for putting that fire back in Junior. Thanks for everything you've done these past years. Going to miss you on that pit box, but wishing you the best at NBC.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Caption This" winner: @AsraiSirena

I'm practicing duck lips for a selfie later.

Congratulations to @AsraiSirena who contributed the winning caption for this photo of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte.

Please send your full name and mailing address to bbreinke@skirtsandscuffs.com to receive your prize, a copy of the devotional book Race Fans' Devotions to Go.

Thanks to everyone who played "Caption this!" Check back next Tuesday for a new photo and your next chance to submit a caption.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Caption this: Dale Earnhardt Jr. & Steve Letarte

CAPTION THIS!  

Leave your caption in the comment section below. One entry per person and please leave your name or twitter handle. Anonymous posts and those with crass or vulgar content will not be eligible to win. Remember, this is all in good fun, so show us your creative, witty side.

We'll take captions until Thursday evening, then the Skirts and Scuffs staff will vote to choose a winner. Check back this Saturday to read the winning caption.

And yes, there is a PRIZE! The "Caption this" winner will receive a copy of the book, Race Fans' Devotions to Go. The winner must follow instructions for sending us his or her contact info, as specified in the winning caption post.

Bring on your funnies. We look forward to reading them! :o)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Championship fire burns strong in No. 88 crew

Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
With 10 laps to go at Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked to have a solid top-15 finish when suddenly contact between the No. 20 of Matt Kenseth and the No. 9 of Marcos Ambrose triggered a huge wreck. The No. 5 of Kasey Kahne plowed into the front of Earnhardt Jr., who had nowhere to go.

The No. 88 was destroyed and the driver was angry at Kenseth. The good points day and finish looked to be over. However, with a great leader like crew chief Steve Letarte and a Chase spot on the line, giving up wasn't an option.

Letarte wasn't about to give up on getting Earnhardt Jr. back on track.

Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs
"Let's go, could be green-white-checkered, we don't know. They're not done wrecking yet," said Letarte on the team scanner.

Letarte was busy getting to work. The No. 88 car didn’t even go inside the garage – the team worked behind the wall non-stop and replaced the radiator within five laps. With four laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. was back on track.

The team may have finished their day 30th, but instead of taking the DNF and losing more points, they ended up gaining at least three points.

"That's three points, boys. That's three points. That's great practice for the final 10,” Letarte told Earnhardt Jr. as they came to the finish.

With just 10 laps left when the crash happened, the No. 88 team could have called it a day and taken a DNF. They didn't have to take the time to fix the car and get it back running on track. But for Letarte to get the ball rolling and for the crew to get that car back on track as quickly as they did shows just how serious they are to win the title.

This is how champions are made - by not giving up and throwing in the towel. It’s easy to admit defeat and say, “Oh well, we’ll get them next time.” But to actually get back on the track with less than four laps to go and gain at least three points is important. Every point counts.

With a great leader in Letarte, I have hope that we could finally see Earnhardt Jr. as a champion. If not this season, then maybe next year. Great leadership and great determination are what it takes to be a champion.

The top-15 finish the No. 88 may have had at Watkins Glen was cut short, but the team’s never-give-up attitude shows they’re ready for that championship.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Earnhart Jr. credits successes of 2011 to crew chief Steve Letarte

Dale Earnhardt Jr. attends the NASCAR media tour.
Credit: Hendrick Motorsports 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. met with members of the media Wednesday afternoon to discuss his thoughts on 2011 and his hopes for 2012. In front of television cameras and a plethora of voice recorders, Earnhardt Jr. went into detail about how his relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte changed his outlook on racing and the way he handles himself at the track. 

According to Jr., Letarte asks more from him than anyone ever has in regards to doing things outside the cockpit. In the past he was expect to show up and race and that was all. Letarte isn't that kind of crew chief. He expects his drivers to be actively engaged in the process of setting up the car and has him "filling out forms and stuff about the races. Giving him information about the car after the races, setting in on discussions about the car in the garage area ... I'd never done any of those things in the 10 years I'd raced before." 

With Letarte in his corner, Earnhardt Jr. believes he can go far and live up to his potential. Letarte cracks the whip, so to speak, and the combination worked well in 2011. Although he's still on a 129-race winless streak, the team is headed in the right direction and that's something that Earnhardt has not felt in a long time. 

Earnhardt Jr. also discussed at length his Nationwide Series team and driver Danica Patrick saying, "She's assertive and determined and that's exciting, especially coming from a woman in this sport it's rare. It's very rare." 

He openly admits his enthusiasm for Patrick is probably selfish, but can you really blame him for that? No matter where she goes or what she does Patrick is the center of attention. Not only is she a sponsor's dream in terms of marketability, but she has a "dynamic edge to her personality." That's something a team like his and the sport of NASCAR need.

Steve Letarte wins the Papa Joe Hendrick Award of Excellence

Steve Letarte won the HMS Papa Joe Hendrick Award of Excellence for 2011.
Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR

Steve Letarte has been awarded the highest honor at Hendrick Motorsports: The Papa Joe Hendrick Award of Excellence.

Founded in 1995 as the Robert Gee Award, the Papa Joe Hendrick Award of Excellence has been bestowed each year on the member of the Hendrick Motorsports organization who most embodies the values, principles and ideals of the company. On Tuesday, Letarte was announced as the latest recipient.

The Papa Joe Hendrick Award of Excellence is a well-deserved honor for Letarte for his hard work in 2011. Being a new crew chief to a new driver isn’t always easy, but Letarte proved just how a little teamwork goes a long way.

Letarte had the weight of the world on his shoulders heading into the 2011 season. He took on a job that required big shoes to fill, becoming the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team. In addition to that, Letarte faced the fans of "Junior Nation" through the good, bad and the ugly. Not many crew chiefs can weather those storms, but Letarte proved he definitely can.

Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in NASCAR, hit a rough patch the past few years. Could Letarte get Earnhardt back to being a winning driver who competes for wins?

Not only did Letarte get Earnhardt back to being competitive, but Earnhardt made the Chase, something he hasn't done in over two years. Letarte proved that with good feedback and a positive attitude, anything is possible. It was also refreshing to see the carefree, laid-back Earnhardt Jr. again - something fans have not seen in a long while.

Letarte proved that a change in driver wouldn’t hold him back, that he’d still be the greatest crew chief that he knows how to be. He took on a hard task being Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief, but he took it in great stride. It was a task that many said he’d fail at; however, he proved them all wrong.

Letarte may not have broken Earnhardt’s winless streak yet, but he did get NASCAR’s most popular driver back in the Chase as well as returned that missing fire inside of Junior.

Building on the progress of 2011, Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. head into the 2012 season looking forward.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Through the Eyes of a Fan

Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR

For the last two years it has been a disappointment. In 2009 I came into the NASCAR season excited and ready to see my 88 back in action. I could barley hold my excitement - you have no idea. When the season started, I had no idea just how much I would endure. Not only did my driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. not make the Chase, he also got a new crew chief, a move I hoped would help fix the problem … little did any of us know…

2010 started off strong. Finishing second in the Daytona 500 showed that maybe, just maybe, Junior and Lance McGrew were a good combo. The season started out looking great, with Junior up to 10th in the points. But sadly, sometimes the things that look great on the surface aren't always that good underneath.

Slowly the finishes started to get worse; suddenly, Junior wasn’t even in the Chase. The once great-looking season was starting to fade away into dust, and all my hopes and wishes with it. To me, I wasn’t feeling Lance; to me, Lance wasn’t a good match for Junior. Half the time it was hard to even listen to the two talk on the radio. Before you know it, I was getting ready to just throw the towel in myself, but I wouldn’t do it - I wouldn’t give up!

There were plenty of times people from Twitter, Facebook - heck, even my own family members - suggested I like a new driver. There were times when I thought maybe I should - maybe if I stopped liking Dale Junior all together, then all the anger I felt would go away.

But for a fan like me, that isn’t something I would do, for you see I’m loyal and dedicated to my driver. No matter how poor he finishes, no matter if he ever wins a race, I stick by my driver. Quitting isn’t in my blood, nor is it in my vocabulary.

When the 2010 season was over, I sighed yet again, another season which broke me down and made me feel all sorts of emotions inside. No matter how much I wanted Lance gone and replaced with someone else, I’d stay positive and support my driver no matter what. I guess someone heard my prayers or saw my tweets ...

November 24th. I remember getting all these tweets about a big change at Hendrick. I remember laughing and shaking my head when I read:

“Steve Letarte, Dale Junior’s crew chief.”

I didn’t believe it, not one word of it. It took someone sending me an article and seeing a video for me to truly believe it. Shock, relief, happiness - those were the three emotions I felt the most. But I wouldn’t get my hopes up, why should I? When for two years it’s all been disappointment, I wasn’t convinced that anything would come from Letarte. Boy, was I proved wrong in so many ways.

I know this season is early yet and things can still go wrong, but through my eyes this feels right. The pairing of Steve and Junior is amazing; they work well together and for the first time in years my driver is smiling again, something many of us fans have missed. I know there are still a lot of races yet in the season, but there’s a fire back in Junior, a fire that hasn’t been there in a long time.

I thank LeAwesome for bringing that back into Junior; in my eyes, the changes I’ve seen in my driver have made me enjoy NASCAR again. I don’t feel anger and hurt like I have the past two years; for once, I feel … relieved. There’s many things as a fan I’ve seen and felt, but that’s just what makes us fans that great and amazing.

Through the eyes of a fan, I’m someone who doesn’t quit on my driver. I’m someone who when everyone is telling me to give up and quit, I don’t. I’m someone who basically stays strong and supports their driver no matter what. Through the good, the bad and the ugly, I stayed strong. Through the eyes of a fan, I may even look like you.

The views above are solely those of the writer.