Finishing 11th on Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a streak of consecutive top-10 finishes snapped, marking the second consecutive Cup race he missed the top 10 at Bristol and the seventh consecutive that he failed to lead a lap.
And after this Sunday, there is no mistake to be made. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back to contention in the Cup Series this season.
The day wasn’t perfect. Coming into race day, there was nothing remarkable at all at the effort for the No. 88 team. Jr. qualified 22nd on Friday, the slowest of the four Hendrick Motorsports entries. In second practice Saturday he remained 22nd, fifth of sixth of the Hendrick-backed machines at Bristol (only Jeff Gordon was lower on the charts). And following a tire change in final practice later on Saturday, Jr. was again fifth of sixth between the HMS and Stewart-Haas Racing camps. It was hardly a performance worthy of a previous winner at the facility both at the Nationwide and Cup level.
When the green flag dropped on Sunday, crew chief Steve Letarte openly acknowledged to his driver that he had missed on the setup coming into the weekend. If the No. 88 team was going to carry over the momentum they garnered the past few weeks on NASCAR’s westward swing, it was going to take 500 laps of digging.
Back in 2008, when Earnhardt Jr. made perhaps the biggest move silly season has seen in the modern era when he announced his move to Hendrick Motorsports, the No. 88 team seldom missed…being fast off the trailer was a constant. Jr. led laps and ran second in only his third race with the organization at Las Vegas, a career best at the facility. That strong run was only part of a firestorm start to 2008 that saw Jr. lead double-digit laps in 10 of the season’s first 12 races, as well as snap a multi-year losing streak in June with a fuel-mileage triumph at Michigan.
Even during this hot streak that propelled Jr. into the Chase, there was one consistent in leading laps. With the exception of a Richmond race that saw the No. 88 dumped from the lead late by Kyle Busch, Jr. was never the factor at the end of the race that he was early. The differences weren’t huge, a move from a top-3 car to a top-10 car. But that was the margin that kept Jr. from being a force in the Chase rather than just a part of it… an inability to adjust and improve a car as a lengthy Cup race progressed.
The past two seasons saw this issue magnified; with cars that weren’t where they were that first year at HMS when they came off the trailer, poor decisions with mid-race adjustments and the driver providing feedback on the cars that some called insufficient, that others called incompatible with what the crew chief needed atop the pit box, be it under the leadership of Tony Eury Jr. or Lance McGrew.
It was largely this unacceptable status quo of NASCAR’s most popular driver and an 18-time winner running like a backmarker that influenced owner Rick Hendrick to make drastic crew changes in the offseason, both pairing Jr.’s No. 88 squad in the same shop as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s…and putting Steve Letarte on the war wagon, the same Letarte that nearly won the 2007 Cup title with Jeff Gordon.
On this Sunday in Thunder Valley, the efficacy of that pairing was audible to anyone that bothered to scan the No. 88 team’s frequency. Letarte was a constant presence on the radio the entire afternoon, responding to every single comment the driver made over the radio, even if just to affirm he heard it. And that presence was one of firmness and conviction, a drastic departure from McGrew, who to at least the casual observer seldom seemed to have any control over his driver or the cars he was fielding over the last season and a half.
The benefits Letarte’s leadership have already brought about for this team were evident both in how the team handled adjustments…and how the driver conducted himself over the radio. Every time the yellow flag came out, the first words out of Letarte’s mouth were to the minute detail the adjustments the team would be making on the stop. There was no pause to consider the actions of other teams, no wavering of any kind. Letarte had a plan, and was able to articulate it on the spot. Further, Letarte has shown a tremendous amount of adaptation, even over the course of only four races, to one of Jr.’s most criticized skills…his relay of feedback during the race.
Even when Jr. was at his most cryptic on this Sunday afternoon, Letarte had it covered, for he complimented radio communication with his own observations. Making frequent reference to his own visual observations of the No. 88 car’s behavior on the track, Letarte was able to consistently analyze and compare what his driver was saying with what his eyes were seeing.
The resulting adjustments obviously worked. Though Jr. had to use a lap 130 lucky dog to stay on the lead lap and failed to crack even the top 20 until 250 laps into the race, once they were moving forward, they kept doing it. 100 laps after cracking the top 20, Jr. was running seventh. Even sliding back a few positions, Jr. was challenging for the top 10 when the leaders pitted following David Gilliland’s spin with just under 75 laps to go…until his other bad habit came to fruition; Jr. sped on entry to pit road and incurred a tail end penalty that mired the No. 88 in traffic.
But the temper and exasperation that have characterized Earnhardt’s communications the past two seasons were nowhere to be found when this gaffe was made. Letarte may as well not noticed it happened, telling his driver there was plenty of time. And Jr. bought right into it, as if there was indeed confidence in his crew chief. Amazing what a difference a car that’s actually improving makes.
Mired in traffic, 11th ended up being as far as the No. 88 team would recover. And though the result is certainly not what the team or Jr. Nation hoped to see this Sunday (what little of it populated the sparse crowd seen in the stands, anyway), the confidence that the driver and team were exuding after their strong start to 2011 emerged intact from the treacherous bullring. Calling the No. 88 team, with Earnhardt currently sitting eighth in points following Bristol, legitimate Chase contenders is suddenly very realistic.
And it’s all thanks to a solution that few, be they fans or pundits, ever would have thought of. There was no shortage of those in the stands, the media center and the garage that clamored for Hendrick Motorsports to poach crew chief Greg Zipadelli following Tony Stewart’s departure from Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of 2008, or at least to sign a crew chief that, unlike Eury Jr., would be able to strongarm the often emotional Earnhardt, not only keeping his temper in check, but able to coax what he needed in terms of feedback out of him.
Letarte was never quick off the tongue for that role, lacking both a visible temper and a history of working with a hard case driver. But it just so turns out that Letarte’s seasons of working for Jeff Gordon have primed him for this role…and not just by acclimating him to leading a big-name driver with a rabid fanbase. In spending seasons leading Gordon to numerous race wins, Chase berths and what would have been Cup title number five under the old points system, Letarte got to draw from the knowledge of one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen. He knows HMS’ cars. He knows the adjustments that work. And further, as a comparatively young man in a role long reserved for only the most veteran wrenches, he had to put the name aside and lead Jeff Gordon. Not just facilitate for an accomplished driver, but lead.
That experience, that conviction, and that backbone are just what is needed to corral Dale Earnhardt Jr. and get both driver and team back to form. Even if that doesn’t come with loud angry outbursts.
Bristol was proof positive of just that. Jr. Nation, help has arrived. And a return to relevance is apparently on the horizon.
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