Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows he will get his confidence back as a driver when he runs consistently in the top five in Sprint Cup races again.
How new crew chief Steve Letarte can improve his performance and restore that confidence, he doesn’t exactly know.
Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday that his team’s switch from crew chief Lance McGrew to Letarte, the former crew chief for Jeff Gordon, is like knowing what you’re getting for Christmas.
“It’s healthy,” said Earnhardt Jr., who has 18 career wins but only one victory and one Chase appearance in three years at Hendrick Motorsports. “We needed this to happen. I needed this to happen. Hopefully this will get me back to winning races, running in the top five and running in the top 10.
“I used to own up to my own inconsistencies back in 2000, 2001 all the way up through 2004 and ’05 when we had some of our more successful years. I’d do anything to be that inconsistent now. I know I can be that guy again – at least that good. This is a good opportunity to see if that can happen.”
Letarte will be Earnhardt Jr.’s third crew chief since joining Hendrick in 2008. He joined Hendrick with Tony Eury Jr., his crew chief at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the son of his most successful crew chief, Tony Eury Sr.
Although Earnhardt Jr. made the Chase in 2008, he struggled in 2009 and Eury Jr. was replaced by McGrew, who led the No. 88 team for 60 races. During that time, Earnhardt Jr. was winless and had the two worst points finishes of his career – 25th in 2009 and 21st in 2010.
“I have no answer for why when we worked with Pops that worked and Tony Jr. didn’t work,” Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday after being named the sport’s most popular driver for the eighth consecutive year. “I thought that Tony Jr. was as smart, if not smarter, with today’s technology than Pops was. I felt they were on equal grounds and I was going to have a dynasty of a crew chief in Tony Jr.
“He has that talent and that knowledge and it just didn’t work. We made a change with Lance, and we went half a season and we felt pretty good about what he was doing, decided to go another year and it didn’t work. I was up and willing for a change and I sat on the side and waited to see what that change would be. I was called into the floor and told what the new deal was and I’m behind it.”
Confidence has always been a key to Earnhardt Jr.’s performance and success. It has been lacking the past three years.
“The only person that can truly help me get where I need to go starts with me, then it goes to [team owner] Rick [Hendrick], Steve and those guys in your inner circle every week and in your corner every week,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “My biggest problem, I think, is my confidence.
“I know what I’ve done in my past and I know that I’ve outrun and beat these guys that I compete with each week before. I just have to remember that the potential is there.
“I believe in myself, but there’s a swagger that you have to have. … To convince myself to get back where I need to be confidence-wise, I need to see it happen on the track. I can’t just talk myself into going to the track thinking the way I need to think. I’m going to go there, mash the gas and it needs to happen.”
Earnhardt Jr. said he and McGrew made some progress but not enough to warrant sticking together. McGrew will now work with Mark Martin, while Martin’s former crew chief, Alan Gustafson, will guide Gordon’s No. 24 team.
“I really bought into the program and bought into Lance’s opportunity and his ability to lead us as a crew chief,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We did some good things. We just weren’t moving along fast enough in this world as far as getting more productive and getting better as a team – we weren’t doing that quickly enough.
“In this time and age, you have to produce now. We feel that urgency and we feel that responsibility and pressure. I do.”
Not only will Earnhardt Jr. get Letarte as his crew chief, he will race with the crew that worked for Gordon and drive the cars Gordon drove this season. He will now be based in the shop with five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, and many of the people who work on Johnson’s cars will now work on Earnhardt Jr.’s cars as well.
“I don’t think there’s anything that the 48 team [of Johnson] would look at [me] as something that could drag them down,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think they’re a little more confident than that.
“If anything, Jimmie should be able to maintain his success. … It’s a little bit intimidating going into there and knowing how successful that team has been. But it also is an opportunity to rub up against it and learn what you can and be observant to what feels different about it, the culture in the shop and the approach they take to racing.”
Earnhardt Jr. and his old team had lunch together last week, and he also has spoken to his new crew.
“I really didn’t know hardly any of those guys,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s a new environment. It’s like going to a new school. You’ve got to make new friendships and new relationships. For me personally, I’m reluctant to make those kind of relationships, but when you’re forced into a situation like this, once you do make those relationships, that’s probably the biggest reward about the sport.
“The friendships that you make, the bond, the camaraderie and going to bat for each other and getting to know some truly amazing people that you otherwise would have the opportunity to get to know.”
The 36-year-old driver is also looking forward to having a clean slate and starting over with a new team.
“You look at it as a clean slate and a chance to see if this new package, new chemistry will produce better results,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “The anticipation to get to the track is more and you’re ready to go to work and want to go run laps at the same speed and see lap times and see adjustments and feel new cars and what they’re doing and how they’re reacting to the changes that the new crew chief is making and the new engineer is producing.”
Earnhardt Jr. joked that he will have to change his vocabulary on the radio because Letarte’s kids listen at home on the team scanner.
“I hope for me, being around him and his group and their professionalism will rub off on me, make me a better driver, make me a better person, make me more productive in my communication with him,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
While Earnhardt Jr. and McGrew won’t work together, there is no animosity between them and they weren’t frustrated with each other despite some heated exchanges during races, Earnhardt Jr. said.
“We pretty much knew that things weren’t working well,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We were very aware with what reality was and how we were running and how poorly things were going. We were frustrated. We were pitted so closely together throughout the weekend that some of that is going to bounce off each other a little bit.
“I never took it personally from him. … We got along pretty good considering how me and Tony Jr. would have handled the same situation.”
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