Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a lot of positive media attention prior to the Auto Club 400 and for a very good reason.
As the Sprint Cup season moved to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Earnhardt Jr. was ninth in points with finishes of 11th, eighth and 10th in three of four races.
It was abundantly clear that Earnhardt Jr. was off to a good start, although, to be frank, it wasn’t much better than in the one in 2010 – and more on that later.
However, whenever Earnhardt Jr. gives at least a hint of restoring his lost competitiveness, it’s always duly noticed.
And it’s understood why. His last victory came on June 15, 2008. He missed the Chase that year and again in 2009. The past two seasons have been the worst of his career.
However, before the green flag fell for the Auto Club 400 many speculated that Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence was on the upswing and that, perhaps, he might believe again that good things could happen at long last.
Asked if his Rick Hendrick-owned team was capable of top-10 finishes every week, Earnhardt answered in the affirmative.
“We’re capable of that,” he said. “We’re good enough for that. You should come to the race track and expect to run around the guys who are in that position.
“I feel like we’re legitimate, yes sir.”
What has been most often credited for Earnhardt’s competitive turnaround, this early in the season, is the team-wide personnel swap Hendrick made at the end of last season.
That brought Steve Letarte, formerly Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, to Earnhardt Jr.
It appears the chemistry between Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. is brewing nicely.
Hendrick noted that every driver feels a loss of confidence at some point, but, very often, it’s restored with the support of the crew chief.
Hendrick added he thought the Earnhardt Jr.-Letarte combination was the best in the garage area.
That’s certainly up for debate. But Earnhardt Jr. apparently feels the arrangement is working.
“Steve and I have a lot in common and our personalities make it where it seems like it’s easy for us to have a conversation,” he said.
Earnhardt Jr. added he hangs around the hauler much more because he enjoys talking with Letarte.
“Just sitting around long enough, eventually something is going to pop up and I want to be there for that conversation,” he said. “I don’t want him texting me on the phone while I’m on the bus going, ‘Hey, I think I know what we can do.’
Now, I could be very wrong, but last year I don’t recall Earnhardt Jr. offering any quote that remotely suggested he wanted to hang around the hauler and talk to his crew chief.
While Earnhardt Jr. has had a good start, it must be said that it is much the same as it was in 2010.
After the first five races of that year Earnhardt Jr. also had two top-10 runs, including a second at Daytona, and was an even higher eighth in points.
He has two top-10s through five events this year – again – and is 12th in points, obviously lower than a season ago.
The numbers tell us that after five races, he’s worse off now than he was a year ago – really.
But there’s a very big difference. It’s one that should not be ignored.
Last season Earnhardt Jr., with his Daytona run, found himself second in points after one race. He steadily slipped from there and fell out of the top 10 after race No. 8. Thereafter, as a contender, he was merely an afterthought.
This year he was 24th in points after Daytona, where he was involved in an accident. But, unlike 2010, he has steadily risen in points from the first race of the season until the slip at Fontana.
In other words, Earnhardt Jr.’s season began to fade from the start in 2010. It has done quite the opposite, for the most part, in 2011. It’s a much different trend.
Credit Letarte, the resulting boost in Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence, or anything else you wish.
Earnhardt Jr.’s season, so far, is obviously headed in a different direction. It’s something with which he, and his Hendrick team, has been unaccustomed in past years.
We will see where it goes from here.