Right place, right time? (Photos by LAT Photographic)
One of the great truisms in sport is that you are what your record says you are. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s record has been hugely disappointing – just one points race victory (Michigan in '08); just one top-10 points finish (seventh last year). And just nine top-five race finishes from 2009-'11 – fewer than mid-pack runners like Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano and David Reutimann over the same period.
Much was expected when Earnhardt joined NASCAR's most elite team, but precious little has been delivered so far, at least on track. Everyone has a theory as to why Earnhardt has underachieved: There have been suggestions that Junior is too nice a guy and needs to race with more aggression, while others say that with an estimated net worth of about $300 million, Earnhardt isn't especially motivated. And then there is NASCAR's equivalent of the Single Bullet Theory, espoused by the fanatical elements of the Earnhardt Nation – that Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon get the “good” Hendrick cars, while Junior gets the lesser goods. All at Hendrick Motorsports, from Rick Hendrick down, vehemently deny this.
Still, whatever the reason, Earnhardt's record in recent years has just been OK, not anywhere near the lofty heights expected by Earnhardt, his Hendrick Motorsports team, his sponsors or his fans. And yet there are encouraging signs that this year Earnhardt may be poised to make his most serious title run since 2004, when he finished fifth in points and with five races to go was second, just 24 points behind eventual champion Kurt Busch.
Prior to the start of the 2011 season, team owner Rick Hendrick juggled his crew chiefs, sending Steve Letarte (with Junior, RIGHT) and crew from Jeff Gordon's car to Earnhardt's, and Alan Gustafson moved from Mark Martin's car to Gordon's. While Earnhardt went winless in '11, he ended the year seventh in points, his best showing with Hendrick and his highest finish since '06. He came within a quarter of a lap of winning the Coca-Cola 600 before running out of gas, and he nearly won at Martinsville, too. A lot of that success was due to the chemistry between Earnhardt and Letarte.
Letarte, who started his affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports by cutting the grass at Ray Evernham's house as a teenager, is equal parts cheerleader and task master, giving Earnhardt some needed encouragement and some much needed tough love. For the first time in his entire racing career, Earnhardt is now being required to keep the kind of detailed notes of his race weekend that other top drivers do and Letarte has also pushed Earnhardt from a fitness and discipline standpoint.
“He wanted me on time, he wanted me early, he wanted me here, there, doing things,” says Earnhardt of his first year with Letarte. “He wanted me giving feedback, written forms of how I think the race went. I'd never done those things before. I was glad to conform and do whatever he needed me to do. And hopefully this year, his expectations of me don't change and he stays vocal about it.”