With only three Sprint Cup races completed in 2012, Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a contender.
Yes, it’s early. But there’s talk – perhaps whispers – that NASCAR’s most popular driver is beginning to create hope that his winless drought, now at 132 races, is just about to end.
But wait. We’ve been down this road before.
This potential storyline has been in the headlines and on websites several times since Earnhardt Jr. joined Rick Hendrick’s powerhouse team in 2008.
When the announcement was made that Earnhardt Jr. would occupy a Hendrick Chevrolet, it was expected that wins and championships would be the driver’s to collect. It wasn’t a matter of if but of when.
Soon, reality began to set in. While other Hendrick teams, such as those of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, would define the meaning of success, Earnhardt’s existence was merely rise and fade, rise and fade and maybe even rise again.
Consistency hasn’t been part of his program in any of the past four seasons.
Based on past performances, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that a turnaround is in the offing for Earnhardt’s Concord, N.C.-based team.
The vast majority of motorsports writers have taken a wait and see approach, especially after what has transpired in the past.
Although Earnhardt Jr. has been here before, there just might be a reason to think he and crew chief Steve Letarte may be on to something.
Let’s give this a chance.
During Speedweeks at Daytona, leading up to the season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team were billed as having one of the stronger Chevrolets in the field.
He ran strong in the Bud Shootout, in his Gatorade 150-qualifying race (good enough to start fifth) and finished second just behind race winner Matt Kenseth in the 500.
At Phoenix, he struggled in qualifying and started 29th but after some adjustments to the car, finished a respectable 14th.
In race three at Las Vegas on Sunday, he qualified fourth, led 70 of 267 laps and finished 10th. His Las Vegas outing, in which he led more laps than he did all last year, was impressive – but came up short.
Earnhardt Jr. thought he had a car capable of winning but blamed himself for falling so far back in the closing laps. At the end of the race he was frustrated.
But earlier he was happy with the positive vibes felt throughout the weekend.
“Well, when we were fast leading the race the car was really tight,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I knew by the end of the race, especially with all of those cautions we had at the end, that it was going to be a really tight race track and we needed to free the car up.
“I didn’t get Steve enough information throughout the day to really give him the idea of how tight the car was. The track sort of went past us as far as our handling goes.
“The Chevrolet was really good all weekend. We had good speed. Hopefully we can keep bringing cars like that to the race track and we will get some opportunities to win.
“We had good speed, led some laps. This is a tough series. When you get back in traffic, it gets very competitive.”
Earnhardt Jr. seemed confident and upbeat, feelings that he hasn’t enjoyed much during his tenure with Hendrick.
He might not have had quite enough at Vegas, but he felt good enough to be optimistic about upcoming races – if for no other reason than he knows how he can improve his contributions.
“We weren’t bad, we weren’t terrible and the car was great at the start of the race but it was tight then, even when I was driving away from guys,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was like, ‘Man, we are going to have to free it up’, because the track was going to get way tighter.
“You know that from years and years of driving and I should have known how it drove that first run. We should have worked on it and I should have told Steve more about it. I should have let him understand what was going on more.”
Talent, horsepower, sponsorship dollars and state-of-the-art chassis and race cars have always been a staple at Hendrick Motorsports. Every employee wants for absolutely nothing.
It’s the chemistry between driver and crew chief that can’t be bought. That’s something that must be constructed over time through a great deal of trial and error.
In 2012, Earnhardt’s strength and confidence continues to grow with Letarte in only their 39th race together.
Could it be possible that an important crossroads has been reached between Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte? Have they found something that gives them new confidence each time they unload at the track? Are they close to reaching that place where consistency is part of their weekly game plan?
It’s possible. Perhaps very possible.
But again, we’ll have to wait and see how well they perform in the coming weeks.