And Now, At Last, All Is As It Should Be For Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his third race of the season at Pocono. His three wins and second-place standing in points have assured him a position in the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his third race of the season at Pocono. His three wins and second-place standing in points have assured him a position in the Chase.

What is now is what it was supposed to be all along.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was tagged to be the son who carried on his father’s legacy. That would not be easy because Dale Earnhardt won seven championships and transformed into a racing icon – not just in NASCAR, but also for all of motorsports.

It was a huge heritage left for his son.

But after his father died in a crash at Daytona in February of 2010 slowly, after the grief subsided somewhat (not sure it has ever gone away), many of those legions of fans whose intense loyalty was given to “The Intimidator” gave the same to his son.

Their feeling was, and remains, that if the father was gone it made perfect sense to transfer that loyalty to the son – a winner and a two-time Busch Series champion.

And now, after many years, at last I think they have been rewarded. Earnhardt Jr. stands today as a confident, winning driver who, in the midst of his best season ever, has an opportunity to win a championship.

He has been, for over a decade, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. But for so long it’s been thought that he has been something of a disappointment for his followers, known as the “Junior Nation.”

That’s not the case this year.

With his victory at Pocono, Earnhardt Jr. compiled his third win of the year.

Earnhardt Jr. struggled for several seasons after he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. But in 2014, he has had the kind of performance expected of him.

Earnhardt Jr. struggled for several seasons after he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. But in 2014, he has had the kind of performance expected of him.

He is presently No. 2 in points, a mere 17 behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

He is locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In fact, at present he is the No. 2 seed.

Simply put, he’s in. He’s a championship contender.

And he’s more than that. He’s a different man.

He has no doubts about himself, his team and his life. In person or on TV, all you have to do is look at him. His eyes are bright; his smile is wide.

No longer does he hold his head down and speak with measured tones.

He will tell you: “Everything about life right now has been great.” And that means professionally and personally.

It did not used to be that way.

There was a time when many thought he would be a competitive bust.

He would be lost in the shadow of his father. Even his most ardent fans found themselves disappointed, week after week.

For seven full seasons after his father’s death, Earnhardt Jr. continued to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

He won 15 races but only once, in 2002 when he finished third in points, did he have a real sniff at a championship.

Many, including me, never believed Earnhardt Jr. was completely satisfied driving for DEI, of which he had little, if any, control.

That was in the hands of his stepmother Teresa. Now consider this: If the son of Dale Earnhardt would think he should have some measure of leadership of the team his father founded, it would not sit well with him if he didn’t get it.

And he didn’t. Earnhardt Jr. stunned the press in Daytona in February of 2007 when he said – as he walked briskly out of the media compound – that he thought he should have ownership of at least 50 percent of DEI.

Few thought that was going to happen. And it didn’t.

So Earnhardt Jr. made the move he believed would be the right one. He left DEI and joined powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season.

A happy man, Earnhardt Jr. said he had done the thing that would “win races and championships.”

But for so long it appeared neither was going to be the case.

Earnhardt Jr. won only two races for Hendrick from 2008-2013. His highest points finish was fifth in ’13, a season in which he did not win.

Perhaps the 2012 season was his nadir. Involved in a multicar crash at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. sustained a concussion and had to sit out two races.

That meant he had no chance at the Chase and a championship.

After the winless ’13 season few held hope that Earnhardt Jr. would have anything close to a championship season.

As you now know, that has not been the case.

He already has more wins in a single season than in the previous six combined. To date his top five finishes already match those of the last two seasons – and there are 15 races remaining this year.

But here’s what is most important:

Earnhardt Jr. has ascended to the position he was destined. He is a vastly popular driver, a multiple winner, a championship contender and a very happy, contented man.

He has now found the place for himself that his many fans wanted for him and for which he struggled to find.

And the once powerful DEI, which he departed, is now in the dust, no more than a racing memory.

The son has risen.

He may not be this year’s champion.

But he is already the measure of the driver so many expected of him.

And he revels in it. As he should.

 

 

 

Earnhardt Jr., Letarte Will Give Their Best In 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a very good 2013 season and hopes to do better in 2014, his last run with crew chief Steve Letarte.

There is no doubt that the pairing of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte has produced Earnhardt Jr.’s most successful seasons with Hendrick Motorsports.

In 2013, Earnhardt Jr. failed to win a race, but, and perhaps more important, he finished fifth in the final point standings. It likely would have been higher had he not suffered engine failure at Chicagoland, the first race in the Chase.

In 2014, Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte will have one last chance together to accomplish greater things.

That’s because Letarte will move to the TV booth for NBC, which will begin broadcasting NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races in 2015.

Letarte, 34, will join Rick Allen and Jeff Burton in the booth, yet another union of television personality, driver and crew chief.

As an aside, it has all the makings of a good one.

Letarte has been a Hendrick “family member” since he was a kid. After he graduated from high school in 1996, he began working at Hendrick as a mechanic and tire specialist for Jeff Gordon.

He later became car chief and then Gordon’s crew chief in 2005. Letarte won 13 races with Gordon from 2005-2010.

He joined Earnhardt Jr. in 2011.

In the last three seasons Earnhardt Jr. has one win, 24 top-five and 54 top-10 finishes. He has qualified for the Chase all three seasons.

Letarte served as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief from 2005-2010 and won eight races with the four-time champion.

As said, 2013 was his best season with Letarte.

With so much to look forward to, it begs the question, why would Letarte leave?

Well, he made a good impression on NBC.

“It wasn’t too long into our first meeting about his potential role on our broadcast team when I realized that Steve is going to be ‘must see TV’, said NBC Executive Producer Sam Flood, who was obviously smitten with Letarte.

However, that only partially explains why a young crew chief, who may be part of a championship team, would give up his career.

Earnhardt Jr. said he heard rumblings of Letarte’s possible departure as early as Charlotte in October. By the last race at Homestead, he knew the deal was imminent.

“Yeah, it was a huge shock at first, and just for me personally, it was difficult,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I knew Steve wanted to spend more time with his family.

“And the more I sat down with him and talked about it, the more it made sense and the more I understood his situation.

“I could put my own selfishness aside and kind of understand what was important to him and how this was good for him.

“You know, he’s a good guy. He deserves these opportunities and he’s earned it.”

Letarte was taken by the enthusiasm and excitement NBC executives displayed over their return to NASCAR in 2015.

“Their excitement and solidarity along with my love for racing fired my decision to move away from the pit box and into the broadcast booth,” Letarte said.

Letarte’s move surprised many, given that crew chiefs and drivers normally move into the broadcast booth when their careers have expired.

Letarte doesn’t appear to be a bit concerned about that. Frankly, if he does a good job – and it’s likely he will – he could remain with NBC through 2024, perhaps longer if the network’s contract with NASCAR is renewed.

But the more pressing question is, how will Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. perform in 2014, which is a season with much promise, but now may be afflicted by a lame duck crew chief.

My response would be, “Junior Nation, fear not.”

I just cannot believe that Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte will not give it their all. I do not believe it is in them to do less.

They may be on the verge of a signature season and I don’t think their desire to reach higher ground will fade a bit.

“I’ve grown a lot as a driver working with Steve, and I feel confident that we can continue to see success,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I want to give Steve a lot of credit for how I’ve changed, and he does have a lot of influence on the performance of the team.

“I’m not really worried about whether we’ll be able to maintain our consistency and keep getting better.

“I really feel like Steve has helped me become much more professional behind the wheel and in handling my responsibilities and communicating and carrying myself as an adult and as a professional.”

Of course a question that may be posed throughout the entire season is, who will replace Letarte?

“You know, I’m not going to make any discussions on who I think we should get in there to replace Steve, but I’m ready to win races,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think that the team is getting really close to being able to accomplish that.

“The way we ran last year was an improvement on the past season, and 2012 was an improvement on 2011.

“I want to keep that going because we’re getting really close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2014: Earnhardt Jr. And The No. 3 Will Be Under Scrutiny

In 2014, Austin Dillon will race the No. 3 Chevrolet as the newest Sprint Cup driver for Richard Childress Racing.

I think that in 2014 more attention will be paid to all things Earnhardt than in a long time.

There are two reasons for this. First, the hopes of the “Junior Nation” have soared after the son of Dale Earnhardt earned a fifth-place points finish in 2013. No, he didn’t win but he was the highest finisher in the championship without a victory.

He had 22 top-10 finishes, which tied him with Kyle Busch with the most among the top five.

Such a performance has his many, many fans wondering if the coming season will be the one in which Dale Earnhardt Jr. achieves his shining moment.

Will he win? Is there – gulp – a championship in sight?

I say yes on both counts. More about that later.

Earnhardt Jr. will indeed be under scrutiny. But among his loyal fans and many others, perhaps not as much as Austin Dillon.

As you know Dillon, the 2013 Nationwide Series champion, will begin his NASCAR Sprint Cup career in 2014 with Richard Childress Racing.

Dillon will drive a Chevrolet with the white, slanted No. 3 – the number made famous, and so identified with, Dale Earnhardt.

The senior Earnhardt won seven championships and 76 races with the No. 3, driving for Rod Osterlund, Bud Moore and Childress.

He became a NASCAR icon who is held in the highest esteem to this day, nearly 13 years after his death in a crash at Daytona.

Not until now has the No. 3 been seen in NASCAR. And some people say it should stay that way.

Dillon drove for Childress, his grandfather, in the Nationwide Series in 2013 and won the championship.

To have anyone else use the number is an affront to the memory of one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.

I understand that.

But I think Childress had, for a long time, plans for the number. Dillon is his grandson who moved up the competition ladder and reached the point, with his Nationwide title, where he proved he had the talent and skill to race at NASCAR’s highest level.

Which is exactly what Childress wanted to see. With NASCAR’s cooperation – the sanctioning body owns the No. 3 – he bestowed the number to his own flesh and blood, which was his right.

But there is this: Any driver – yes, any driver – that competes with the No. 3 is subject to intense scrutiny and, let’s face it, pressure to do well.

This includes Dillon. I think he has a huge challenge in 2014. Fair or not, he has to prove he can restore the No. 3 to competitiveness.

As a first-year driver he can’t be expected to pile up victories and pole positions. But with the No. 3 he has to race competitively and earn respect.

It’s not going to be easy. Dillon knows that. He also knows he has to show that his grandfather made the right choice.

Given that, Dillon and the No. 3 will certainly attract more than their share of attention in 2014.

As will Earnhardt Jr.

That he can do exceptionally well has already been established.

He seems to have established a bond with crew chief Steve Letarte that, in part, led to a strong performance this past season.

Although they didn’t win they could have. Earnhardt Jr. finished second five times including twice in the Chase.

Fact is, after Chicago, the first of 10 races in the Chase where Earnhardt Jr. finished 35th after a blown engine (only his third DNF of the season), the Hendrick Motorsports driver finished among the top 10 in eight of the last nine events.

Perhaps Earnhardt Jr.’s accomplishments in 2013 might have been more noteworthy had he not suffered the stumble at Chicago – or he had won a race.

Still, he offered ample evidence he can do well and, perhaps, in 2014 he will do even better.

Frankly, I would not be surprised. I think he has the momentum and confidence to make it happen.

He’ll be watched.

So will the No. 3.

 

 

Earnhardt Jr. Earns ‘Good Grades’ In 2013, Hopes Higher To Come

Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t win in 2013 he had one of his best seasons. He ran consistently well and finished No. 5 in the point standings to match his best Chase performances.

At the end of a season many members of the motorsports media rate drivers’ overall performances during the previous NASCAR Sprint Cup campaign.

It’s kinda like final grades from school – this driver gets an “A,” that one a “B,” and so forth, right on down to “F.”

Yeah, it’s all a matter of personal opinion, but then, doesn’t the motorsports media – me included – pretty much offer that all the time?

That said, you can easily figure what marks six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and 2013 runnerup Matt Kenseth received. They were at the top of the class.

There were other drivers who got grades that, while they didn’t make them class valedictorians, clearly indicated recognition of their performances.

I’m sure Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were among this group.

And I’m also sure Dale Earnhardt Jr. was, too.

If he wasn’t, well, call that one huge error in judgment.

Earnhardt Jr. had a very, very good year. He wound up fifth in points, which matched his career-best showing in the Chase, achieved twice in 2004 and 2006.

Also, this season was a very nice rebound from 2012, when Earnhardt Jr. stood 11th in points until he had to sit out two races with a concussion that occurred during testing at Kansas and was exacerbated at a crash at Talladega, the fourth race of the Chase.

He ended the year 12th in points and, obviously, well out of contention for the title.

Unfortunately, he did not win a race in 2013. He hasn’t won since Michigan in June of 2012.

While “Win, Dale Win!” has become the mantra for the “Junior Nation” – a collection of fans that pales compared to that for any other driver – they have to realize some measure of satisfaction in that their driver ran consistently well all season and finished among the top five.

One of Earnhardt Jr.’s best runs in the Chase was at Dover, where he won the pole and finished in second place, one of three runnerup finishes in the final 10 races of the year.

Earnhardt had 10 top-five finishes and 22 among the top 10. More impressive is the fact that he finished among the top 10 in eight of the Chase’s 10 races.

That includes three runnerup finishes, at Dover, Talladega and Texas, and a third-place run at Homestead that sealed his fifth-place points finish.

By the way, Earnhardt Jr. wound up just a single point behind fourth-place Kyle Busch.

And let’s not forget he finished second in the Daytona 500 a harbinger that good things might come.

“We just got behind in the regular season by not winning enough, not doing enough to get bonus points,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Those points are so important. If you put a good 10 races together, add them bonus points on top of it, man, you’re going to be hard to beat.”

No doubt Earnhardt Jr. would have loved to win. What driver wouldn’t? But he said throughout the year that his confidence and faith in his Hendrick Motorsports team were so strong that, at the very least, he never doubted its ability to be victorious.

He stressed that at Homestead.

“Yeah, we’ve actually been really good every week since the Chase started,” Earnhardt Jr. said after the race. “I can’t remember, but I think we were pretty good at Chicago before we blew a motor.”

That blown engine sent Earnhardt Jr. to a 35th-place finish and put him in a hole in the standings – from which he escaped nicely

“We came to Homestead and tested,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I really liked how that worked out.  We worked on the car real hard and real smart.  We felt like we had a car that was going to come to us and it surely did.

“We weren’t that great at the start of the race, but as the race wore on, the thing really came to life.”

Steve Letarte became Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief for the 2011 season after which the son of Dale Earnhardt earned his best statistical year since 2008, his first with Hendrick.

Earnhardt Jr. has only gotten better with Letarte’s leadership. And he knows it.

“I’m really happy to run as well as we have this season,” he said. “This has been one of the best years I’ve had, certainly the best year I’ve had working with Hendrick.

“I just want to give my team a lot of credit.  Steve, my engineers, did just an amazing job providing these good cars every week.”

If there have been good cars every week – and that seems obvious – Earnhardt Jr. can’t explain the reason why, although he’s tried.

“I’ve asked Steve over and over and asked everybody on the team at least once or twice what we’re doing different,” he said. “They said they’re not doing anything different.

“We have been more competitive, I think, not as a company, but I just think the No. 88 team has really stepped it up.”

Which, obviously, has been a boon for Earnhardt Jr. and fuels his – and those of his many fans – hopes for even better things to come, perhaps starting as early as 2014.

“I’m hoping next year we continue our trend and our trajectory and get a shot at winning a championship,” he said. “I think we can do it.”

And, if so, it naturally follows his many fans will be ecstatic – and he’ll get even higher grades.

 

Earnhardt “Pissed Off” With Martin’s Driving


Dale Earnhardt Jr. was squeezed into the wall by Martin in the closing stages of the Michigan 400 NASCAR race yesterday. Earnhardt blew a tire and flattened the side of Earnhardt’s car. Denny Hamlin took his second win this year shuffling the points. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

Hamlin Does What We Thought He Would Do – At Last

A smattering of observations after the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 (now that’s a helluva name) at Michigan International Speedway.

** Think is more than fair to say that most of us figured Denny Hamlin would have won a race by now – especially Hamlin.

After all, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver won eight races and nearly captured the Sprint Cup championship last year. As the season began, he was cast in the role as a driver who might end Jimmie Johnson’s five-year reign as champ.

Instead, Hamlin was winless entering the Michigan race and overcame a rough start to rise to 12th in points.

Hamlin was frustrated by his performance so far this season and he said so. But he also felt that Gibbs’ recent performances were evidence the team was on the verge of victory.

“In the last six or seven weeks, we’ve been as good as anyone,” Hamlin said. “Feels good to get a win after sneaking up on everyone.”

It seemed he sneaked up, somewhat, on the field at Michigan. His crew worked on his Toyota all day and, with some key adjustments, he worked his way to the front and took the lead on pit road with just eight laps left in the race.

After his team got his car tightened up, Hamlin made his way forward and emerged in second place after he pitted during a caution on lap 162.

Carl Edwards took the lead on the restart and stayed there, with Hamlin in tow, for the next 29 laps.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. clipped the wall on lap 191, which brought out a caution flag with just eight laps remaining, Hamlin won the race off pit road.

He held off Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who finished second and third, on the restarts.

With his first victory of the season, Hamlin rose three positions in points, to ninth. He’s also firmly in contention for one of the two Chase “wildcard” positions should he not finish among the top 10 in points following Richmond in September.

“It’s so tough because you know you belong in the top-10 and you deserve to have a Chase spot, but the results don’t show for it,” Hamlin said. “So, for us, it’s good to kind of get over this hump, get our first win of the season and hopefully it’s the first of many.

“You have to pay attention to the points. If you’re not points racing at this point you’re not paying attention to the obvious, because with this new format you either got to win or you’ve got to be inside that top-10.”

The Michigan finish was Hamlin’s sixth among the top 10 this season. It was also his second consecutive victory in the spring race and his seventh top-10 finish in 10 races at the track.

Hamlin gave credit where it was due – to his team.

“Mike (Ford, crew chief) just kept working on this car,” Hamlin said. “At times we had a 10th-place car and at times we had the best car. We just didn’t get it all put together until right there at the end.

“I just can’t thank this whole team enough. Awesome pit stops – they are the ones that got me out in front on that last restart and that’s what we needed to win.”

Carl Edwards remains first in points with his fifth-place run and is now 20 points of Kevin Harvick, who finished 14th.

Earnhardt Jr. remains third in points despite a 21st-place finish following a late-race altercation with teammate Mark Martin. The finish was Earnhardt Jr.’s first outside the top 20 this year

Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson, a pre-race favorite, lasted only a handful of laps before he spun and broke the sway bar on his Chevrolet.

The Hendrick Motorsports team repaired the car but there just weren’t enough cautions for him to make up the lost ground. His 27th-place finish pushed him from second to fifth in points.

On the other hand, Paul Menard qualified ninth and finished fourth for his third top-five finish in 2011, the most in his career.

And in 13 starts this season, Landon Cassill hadn’t finished higher than 24th until he came home 12th at Michigan driving for Phoenix Racing.

 

What Hype? This Martinsville Race Provided The Expected And More

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Just to offer a few musings after the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

** Let’s face it, just about every race at every speedway on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit comes accompanied with a lot of hype.

So it was with Martinsville. How many times did we hear, or read over the course of several days, that NASCAR’s oldest track was, because of its half-mile, paper-clip configuration, one of the most difficult on which to compete?

Drivers couldn’t succeed at Martinsville unless they figured out how to whoa down from high straightaway speeds, keep a low line and then roll their cars smoothly through the tight turns.

If they didn’t learn how to manage their brakes, they were doomed.

They could expect a lot of bumping, banging and gouging for position because it has always been extremely difficult to pass.

And so on and so forth …

Such things have been said, so often and for so long, about Martinsville (and admittedly every other track), that many of us tend to roll our eyes as if to say, “Yeah, yeah, so what else is new?”

Guess what? This year there was at least one new thing. It was discovered during practice that the tire compound provided by Goodyear did not permit the racing surface to “rubber up,” or, in other words, to create a second groove with enough grip, generated by runner burned into the asphalt and concrete, on which to race.

Instead, flakes or rubber – called “the marbles” for years but also known as “owl (business)” in days passed – were tossed toward the outside of the track. This created extremely poor racing conditions because of a lack of grip.

This was part of the Martinsville pre-race drama this year.

You know what? This year it, and everything else that’s been said about the track, wasn’t hype at all. It was true. The Goody’s Fast Relief 500 contained elements of everything racing at Martinsville is supposed to be, and then some.

For example, there was indeed only one racing groove. Those pieces of rubber flung toward the outside of the track made a second almost impossible – hell, you can’t race on “marbles.”

Consequently, drivers always charged toward the inside of the track – the only place to be. Those in the outside lane had no chance to pass, particularly on restarts. When they could, finally, move down one lane they did so, but often at the cost of several lost positions.

Now, as for the banging, bumping and gouging that is said to be so typical of racing at Martinsville, it was intensified this past Sunday.

One reason, and certainly not the only one, was that drivers on the preferred inside line had only one way to get past those ahead of them. And that was to, shall we say, perform the old “bump and run.” Sure couldn’t make a pass on the outside, right?

Such strategy was adopted many times, lap after lap, at Martinsville. Sometimes it was successful and other times not.

Additional incidents were caused when some drivers caught on the outside just forced their way to the inside in desperation.

This was done during a race in which even teammates were loath to give each other the coveted inside groove – especially if it cost them track position.

Consider this: Remember the “old” Bristol, the one in which there was only one racing groove and the only way to pass was to adopt the “bump and run?”

After the track was reconfigured and a second racing lane was created, bumping and grinding have been less prevalent.

The drivers love it. The fans do not and they have made that clear.

What we had, for the most part, at Martinsville in this past race was so very similar to the “old” Bristol.

There was jostling and bumping for position that created some, but not all, of the race’s 11 caution periods.

Some were caused by excessive brake use, which resulted in blown tires, and other things.

The point is that while all of the typical racing characteristics at Martinsville were displayed in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500, the newest and most publicized one, the absence of a second groove because of the tire situation, played a significant role in the conduct of the race.

Reckon Goodyear will change all that by the track’s second race it October.
 
** That aside, the race itself turned out to be a beauty.

There might have been several caution periods and one red-flag stoppage, before the race was half complete, that caused us to wonder if everything might be over by nightfall.

In the end, however, none of that mattered as the race wound down to its exciting conclusion.

With 21 laps remaining in the 500-lap race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bumped Kyle Busch out of the way (sound familiar?) in the third turn to take the lead.

The “Junior Nation” went nuts and rightly so. Young Earnhardt seemed on his way to his first victory in 99 races.

It didn’t happen. With four laps to go, Kevin Harvick got past Earnhardt Jr. and went on to win his second straight race.

However, be encouraged, “Junior Nation.”

Your driver has now compiled his best finish of the year and his third among the top-10 in six races. He also has an 11th-place run at Bristol.

After he fell from ninth to 12th in points after a 12th-place run at Auto Club Speedway, his runnerup finish at Martinsville has propelled him to eighth in points.

As I’ve said before, in 2010, he finished second at Daytona, was thus second in points, and slid downward from there. He did not make the Chase.

This year, he finished 24th at Daytona because of an accident. But he steadily rose in points from there, slipped at Auto Club Speedway and now, after Martinsville, has climbed four positions in the standings.

In 2010, his trend was decidedly downward. Now it is upward and his Martinsville performance has significantly contributed to that.

It’s obvious improvement that should offer promise for his many fans.

 

** I don’t know who “they” are, but they’ve named Kevin Harvick “The Closer,” and with good reason.

He won at Auto Club Speedway with his pass on five-time champion Jimmie Johnson on the last lap.

He won at Martinsville by getting the best of Earnhardt Jr. with four laps to go, taking advantage of his rival’s loose Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

He was one of 12 drivers to lead a record 31 laps.

Let’s see … if I figure correctly, Harvick has won two straight races in which he led only five laps – the most important ones, of course.

You have to credit what’s happened so far to his perseverance and that of his Richard Childress Racing team. It has shown the ability to improve its Chevrolet’s performance throughout the course of a race.

My guess would be that Harvick might well prefer to have a strong car capable of victory from the start of a race rather than one, so far, that has been able to succeed only after a sizable amount of work and alterations, which were then accompanied by favorable circumstances.

Heck, to be honest, it doesn’t matter.

Harvick is currently fourth in points and the only driver with multiple wins this season.

So, unless there are unexpected meltdowns at RCR, the victories alone will be enough to qualify Harvick for the Chase this year.

Unlike Last Year’s Start, The Numbers Improve For Dale Jr.

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.

This year Earnhardt Jr.’s start cooled a bit after he finished12th in the Auto Club 400 and fell to 12th in points. And he’s now gone 98 races without a victory.

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.’

“I want to be there so that I can understand it and talk about it.”

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.

 

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