Probably no other driver in NASCAR receives more scrutiny than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There’s good reason for that. First, he carries with him a tremendous heritage passed along by his late father Dale, whom many consider to be the best driver in stock car racing history, and his grandfather Ralph.
Second, the family name and the aforementioned heritage have helped make Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR’s most popular driver and most profitable marketing entity.
Even Earnhardt Jr. will tell you that he thinks a big reason for his popularity is his father, what he accomplished and the kind of person and driver he was.
When the elder Earnhardt perished in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, many of his fans passed their loyalty on to his son – who, at the time, was already a two-time Busch Series champion whose career in Cup competition was seemingly on the rise.
His career may have been on the rise then, but it has certainly since leveled off.
After a well-publicized split from Dale Earnhardt Inc. – of which Earnhardt Jr. wanted to wrest control from his stepmother Teresa – young Earnhardt landed at Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season.
This appeared to be a union destined for success. Certainly Earnhardt Jr. thought so, declaring the Hendrick organization the one with which he could win races and championships.
He hasn’t won a Cup race in nearly three and one-half years.
Team owner Rick Hendrick has made crew chief and crew member swaps, along with other changes, to find the formula that will allow Earnhardt Jr. to be successful.
I don’t think there’s any doubt Earnhardt Jr.’s many fans have been disappointed. But they remain intensely loyal. Their man has been voted the National Motorsports Press Association’s Most Popular Driver for nine consecutive years, including 2011.
Then again, there are those have reached the conclusion that Earnhardt Jr. was never the talented driver many thought he was – and that no matter what Hendrick does, he never will be.
That sentiment exists today and has been expressed more than once in the media’s numerous pre-season reports on the 2012 season.
But it’s also been said that some positive things happened for Earnhardt Jr. in 2011; things which indicate he may be on the threshold of a breakout.
If I may toss in my two cents I tend to agree with the latter.
I’ll be blunt. I think Earnhardt Jr. will win at least one race if not more, and again make the Chase. It will come as a big surprise, though, if he is a championship contender.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Earnhardt Jr.’s career has turned for the better. I believe his overall confidence has increased and his focus is stronger than ever.
One big reason for this is Steve Letarte, who became Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief at the start of the 2011 season.
As much as Letarte has done for the overall performance of Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolets, he has done as much with his driver’s outlook, attitude and work ethic.
Letarte has helped make Earnhardt Jr. realize that to be successful he has to work with the team, contribute to its race preparation, be punctual and, above all else, be able to convey the information needed to improve on-track performance.
Earnhardt Jr. has already said he’s learned to give his crew chief the information he needs and always maintain good interaction.
Earnhardt Jr. said his feedback has become more specific and helpful than it once was – generic, trivial and lacking in detail.
Last year, Earnhardt Jr. said, he abandoned his habit of going to his motorhome between practices. He stayed in the hauler and interacted with his team all day.
I think Earnhardt Jr. has adapted to Letarte’s methods and style and approves of both because the results have been decidedly better.
And Earnhardt Jr. has assured us he doesn’t want anything to change – and for good reason.
While he did not win last year, he made the Chase and wound up seventh in points. He earned more top-five and top-10 finishes than he did in either of the prior two seasons.
Earnhardt Jr.’ s detractors will likely say, “So what?” while his supporters will decree that to make the top 10 in points is a worthy accomplishment, no matter the driver.
With that, I will agree.
I think we’ve seen so many positive results from the Earnhardt Jr.-Letarte union they can’t be ignored. I find it difficult to believe that the lessons Earnhardt Jr. learned in 2011 would be forgotten.
I can’t imagine that the interaction and communication between Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte would do nothing but improve in 2012.
And, again, I think Earnhardt Jr. now has more confidence, a better attitude and a stronger focus. For once in quite a while he and his Hendrick team have gained momentum.
As has always been the case at this time of year, we simply don’t know what is going to happen – to Earnhardt Jr., Letarte or anyone else – during the course of a coming season.
We can only predict based upon evidence offered.
I think there is plenty of that to suggest Earnhardt Jr. could, in 2012, enjoy his best season yet with Hendrick Motorsports.
If that happens, the driver who is the most popular in NASCAR will, as he himself said, give his fans what they expect – and deserve.