Through the first half of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sits 13th in the championship standings, just 33 points above the Chase cutoff.
While earning three second-place finishes early on, over the past five races, the No. 88 team has failed to finish inside of the top 10. In 13 races, Earnhardt has five top-10 finishes, less than two Hendrick Motorsports teammates: newcomer Chase Elliott (nine) and shopmate Jimmie Johnson (seven). HMS as a whole has played second fiddle to the Toyota juggernaut led by Joe Gibbs Racing: those chassis have won eight of the first 13 races, establishing their entire team plus Martin Truex, Jr. as championship favorites. But in racing, who’s on top can change in an instant, the ups and downs of a sport the 41-year-old Earnhardt knows has a long way to go until it wraps at Homestead in November.
In an exclusive one-on-one sit-down interview at Pocono, Earnhardt discusses his uneven start to 2016, as well as the challenges he and Greg Ives have faced with qualifying. Also on the docket: how much longer he’s willing to race in Sprint Cup (Earnhardt’s contract with HMS expires after the 2017 season) and whether he and Amy Reimann have actually set their wedding date after all.
Dustin Albino, Frontstretch: Early in your career, you struggled at Pocono but the last five races you have two wins and an average finish of fourth. What is it about this track that you’ve figured out?
Dale Earnhardt, Jr: I think we’ve ran good since they’ve repaved it. It’s always been a challenging track, but since the repave we started to gain some speed. We just had a pretty good setup that seems to be consistent every time we come here.
Albino: How much did Steve Letarte, your old crew chief help bring you up to speed with this track when he was here?
Earnhardt: We’ve always just had good cars. I think the cars have just drove real well. With Steve, we had a good team and a lot of those guys are still on this team.
Albino: In the past few weeks, you’ve had a pretty honest assessment of your year and what you need to do better. Where would you say your team is at compared to the last two years?
Earnhardt: I think that we would like to gain some speed, There are some tracks coming up that I think we could run really good at. Pocono is one of them, Michigan, New Hampshire. There are some tracks coming up that we feel like we can improve, learn and get some good information.
We started the year out great. We were running really good and got a couple of second-place finishes and it looked like we were on the brink of winning. This past month has been kind of rough, but we will get it figured out.
Albino: Have you changed your daily routine, anything specific at the shop to try and combat the strength of Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing?
Earnhardt: Not really; it’s everything. There are so many variables and parts and pieces that are going into it. It’s not just one area.
Albino: Do you think your attitude about this team has changed from the beginning of the year until now?
Earnhardt: No, not really. We started off great and we’re just going to show up every week ready to race and trying to improve.
Albino: How is crew chief Greg Ives handling these challenges compared to when you went through up and down times with Steve Letarte?
Earnhardt: I think the crew chief is the leader. He’s with the guys every day in the shop and at the racetrack. I lean on Greg to sort of be the leader and get these guys fired up.
I think he does a good job and we had a great year last year and started this year very good and we’ve had a little bit of a rough patch here, but you’re going to have some adversity and you’ll have to deal with that from time to time. I feel like he does a good job. As a member of the team, you just don’t want to be a part of the problem, you want to be a part of the solution. You just have to try and keep everybody’s morale up and try not to make a bad situation worse.
Albino: Have you approached things differently since Ives has come over?
Earnhardt: A little bit. There’s some personality between everybody. When you work with a different guy, you learn what works for him and try to communicate with him. It’s not too challenging and it’s not extremely different than working with Steve. When you are hitting on all cylinders and you are running good, things come a lot easier. When you struggle a little bit, it’s a competitive sport. It’s always good to find that little extra bit of speed you need, but I feel good about it.
Albino: We’ve always known how close Hendrick Motorsports is and how dominant they have been. How much has the No. 88 team leaned on the No. 48 during the past few weeks to try and pick up speed?
Earnhardt: Yeah, Jimmie had speed in the 600. We had better speed in the All-Star Race. We are in the same shop and we understand exactly what they are doing with the cars and what setups they’ve got and there’s a lot of sharing from team-to-team. There’s no mysteries or nothing that we don’t know.
Albino: Qualifying appears to be one of the biggest hurdles to clear as you’ve started 20th or worse seven times this season. How challenging is that throughout the weekend?
Earnhardt: Yeah, it’s really hard. It makes racing difficult because you have to find a way to get to the front. At times it’s a lot fun to try and get to the front, but you certainly would like to make it easier on yourself with qualifying better. It’s been a big challenge trying to find the right balance for us and get speed.
Albino: Has that surprised you at all, the tough qualifying performances?
Earnhardt: Yeah, because we always race so well. We always end up being one of the top five cars in lap times during the race. We’re one of the fastest cars in the race; we just can’t do it in qualifying.
Albino: How do you balance making Fridays better versus putting the effort into race setup?
Earnhardt: They are two different things and you have ample of time to work on both. It’s not really like we have to take away from one to add to the other. It’s just trying to figure out how to understand a theme that might lend itself from track-to-track to help us improve.
Albino: As you get older in your career, you see guys like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, your contemporaries calling it quits. Do you see yourself racing past your current contract with Hendrick Motorsports once it expires after 2017?
Earnhardt: Well, I think that I have some interest to do that. It’s something that we haven’t started to sit down and talk about. We will see what Rick wants to do with his direction, what his future is for the team. We will see if that lines up with what I want to do. I don’t think I will race as long as my dad did, but I have been having a lot of fun over the past couple of years. I would hate to walk away from such a good opportunity prematurely, but when it comes down to it, Rick is the boss and his future and direction of the team is important to me. I’m sure we will get talking about what we want to do past this contract in the next six months.
Albino: I know before you’ve mentioned that you would like to race XFINITY and Trucks once you walk away from Cup. Do you still want to do that?
Earnhardt: I want to run in the XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports as long as it helps the company. I think it would be racing a late model race here and there with the late model program. That’s reasonably affordable and would probably enjoy doing that on and off into my 50s and 60s if that’s what you wish. I think if I had an itch to scratch, that would be a good way to do it.
Albino: Before I let you go, have you decided on a wedding date with Amy?
Earnhardt: We have, but it’s something that we’ve been keeping to ourselves.
Albino: You don’t want to share?
Earnhardt: No. We’re working on the planning and all of that stuff is going good. It’s been a lot of fun.