Race Weekend Central

Fact or Fiction: Dale Jr. Headed the Right Direction at PIR; Can the Track Say the Same?

*FACT: Positive Reinforcement Key to Dale Jr.’s Success*

The “real” season began with a top 10 at Phoenix Sunday for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The Subway Fresh Fit 500 presented two of the many tests Earnhardt will need to pass this year to return to form as the driver that rattled off multiple wins a season back in his days at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. with Tony Eury, Sr. atop the pit box: Making a mediocre car better, and rebounding back from adversity.

When Rick Hendrick orchestrated the latest off-season crew chief change, he underwent criticism for pairing Dale, Jr. with Steve Letarte. Fans and some members of the media believed that what Earnhardt needed was a crew chief that ran somewhat of a dictatorship, much like the relationship Earnhardt and Eury, Sr. had. With the addition of Letarte, however, they received a relationship centered on good communication and positive reinforcement.

So far, it has seemed to at least be a small improvement.

Earnhardt started 35th on Sunday and ended the day sitting 10th on the scoring pylon. Earnhardt and Letarte worked together to improve the car throughout the race. Earnhardt fans have grown quite familiar with the No. 88 having a strong burst in the middle of the race before falling off and finishing mid-pack, or worse, after a poor pit stop or a bad adjustment. Sunday was not one of those days.

I listened to the crew’s radio for a majority of the race Sunday, and after listening to the same radio last year, I sometimes had to make sure I was indeed on their channel. Earnhardt’s voice is heard on the radio describing his car’s current condition. Soon after his description, a calm, cool and collected Letarte would reply with a “10-4, you’re doing great, we’ll get you fixed up.” Letarte offered encouragement and kept Earnhardt informed of the crew’s strategy throughout the race. At no point was there a question of what Earnhardt needed or the team’s strategy.

Bumpy racing surface or not, Sunday’s Cup race saw no shortage of passing or battles for the lead.

The No. 88 crew also overcame a loose wheel later in the race, which dropped them down a lap. But, Earnhardt battled back for a good finish. The entire time, everyone on the team kept their cool.

When asked how far away Earnhardt thought he was from breaking his winless streak, just as his teammate Jeff Gordon did Sunday, Earnhardt said “I was about nine spots behind him. That is about how close we are.” After saying that, Earnhardt laughed – another sign to JR Nation and the NASCAR world that the crew chief change certainly has resulted in progress for the No. 88 team. Whether the team will returning to victory lane this season though, remains to be seen.

*FICTION: Phoenix Should Be Repaved*

Repaving Daytona International Speedway proved to be an outstanding idea. Repaving Phoenix International Raceway has me nervous.

PIR will undergo a complete repave that will be finished before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series fall race weekend, replacing the current track surface that is over 20 years old. Many claim that the repave is a necessity – citing the “bumpy” surface which creates difficulty passing.

I don’t know about everyone else, but for me, tracks that are difficult to pass on are generally more exciting. Drivers have to work their way to the front, not just drive up there. On Sunday, drivers were often seen tasseling for position, beating and banging and bumping all the way through the field.

Despite that bumpy surface that apparently has to be repaved, many track records were broken this week. Qualifying records in all three series at the track were broken this weekend. The Subway Fresh Fit 500 also broke the track record for lead changes, with 28, with the 13 different leaders in the race also a track record.

As we leave Phoenix, all I can hope is that the race track didn’t make a bad decision in repaving a surface that they believed was aged beyond vitality, when it was, in reality, in its prime.

“Contact Kyle Ocker”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/30117/

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