Fans fuel Junior through tough times

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was humbled by receiving NASCAR's NMPA Most Popular Driver Award for the eighth consecutive season.

Considering the dismal season Earnhardt experienced, with only three top-five finishes and eight top 10s, only he can understand the depth of the appreciation that the fans' support has meant to him through the tough times.

"It never gets old, I'll tell you that. I've been real lucky," Earnhardt said. "You get so nervous and overwhelmed just getting up in front of everybody and hoping that you're able to make fans understand how meaningful it is each time. They just keep plugging away each year for you and want you to do so good. It just motivates you so much to just keep going to the track and keep working hard. It just means a ton every time."

Earnhardt has been in the spotlight since he made his Nationwide Series debut at Myrtle Beach in 1996, and the attention has escalated from there. While he enjoyed moderate success at Dale Earnhardt Inc., his career has stalled to some degree, particularly the past three years at Hendrick Motorsports.

Although Earnhardt qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup in his first year with HMS, pundits expected the No. 88 would have all the bells and whistles necessary to contend for wins and titles. With the exception of his one victory at Michigan 93 races ago, his achievements have been few of late.

Still, the fans remain.

"You're surprised that they're there from day one. When I was racing in Myrtle Beach, people would ask me for my autograph and I just assumed it was only because of my relationship with my father," Earnhardt said. "There came a point in my career where I started, when I became more successful, and I felt like I was earning my own core of fans, and then you would hear fans say that they liked you and didn't like your dad, but they liked you. That was kind of cool.

"The first year that we won the Most Popular Driver Award, I was just blown away and didn't expect that I would have an opportunity in the sport still with so much talent and so much great personality. We just keep winning it, and the fans are just truly real loyal. I kind of have a sense of what that's like because of the sports that I follow and the teams that I follow and the loyalty and that factor, and no matter what happens you're there every year. You stick with them no matter what, so I kind of have a sense of what that's like and what that's about. Each year that I've won it, it just means more and more I think."

But fan support can only carry a driver so far. After Earnhardt missed the Chase for the second time since joining the No. 88 team, and his fellow Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin were mounting losses, changes had to be made.

Two days after 2010's final race, Rick Hendrick made major alterations to the Nos. 5, 24, and 88 shops. Earnhardt's former crew chief Lance McGrew was aligned with Martin, and Gordon moved in with crew chief Alan Gustafson.

Earnhardt was moved into what was the No. 24 shop with crew chief Steve Letarte. He is now sharing the same building as the five-time champion No. 48 team led by Chad Knaus. Earnhardt was trusting enough to put the decisions into Hendrick's hands. In the early stages of the deal he says, "It's a real good feeling."

"You look at it as a clean slate and a chance to see if this new package, new chemistry will produce better results," Earnhardt said. "The anticipation to get to the track is more, and you're ready to go to work and want to go run laps and see speed and see lap times and see adjustments and feel new cars and what they're doing and how their reacting to changes that the new crew chief is making and the new engineer if producing.

"It's like knowing what you're getting for Christmas and not being able to mess with it until that morning. It's a lot of anticipation. I think it's healthy. We needed this to happen, and I needed this to happen, and hopefully this is a good position. 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 and all the way up to 2004 and 2005 when we had some of our more successful years. I used to own up to my inconsistencies, and then I would do anything to be that inconsistent now. I know I can be that guy again -- at least that good. I feel like this is a good opportunity to see if that can happen."

After Hendrick replaced Tony Eury Jr. with McGrew in June 2009, the relationship never seemed to develop to the point where Earnhardt could achieve the feel in the car that he needed to be comfortable. While both parties appeared to put in the effort to turn the program around initially, that quickly faded as the results never really materialized. As the relationship progressed, communication on the track was often terse.

"We were frustrated more than anything," Junior said. "Me and Lance would get together and talk and say, 'I'm frustrated,' and 'I'm frustrated,' and 'I'm mad at you,' and 'I'm not mad at you,' and 'I'm not mad at you.'" We pretty much knew that things weren't working well. We were very aware with what reality was and how poor we were running, and we were frustrated. We were pitted so closely together throughout the weekend that some of that was going to bounce off each other a little bit, but I never really took it personally from him.

"If somebody tells me that they're a good friend of mine, I tend to believe what they say. And he's been genuine. We got a long pretty good -- considering how Tony (Eury) Jr. would have handled probably the same type of situation. Steve is a different personality, and I'm interested to see how that goes."

Earnhardt's inner circle admit that what the driver is lacking more than anything is confidence. After any athlete has been in a slump as long as Earnhardt has, that's understandable. A crew chief change might mask some of surface issues but the mechanics run deeper. Earnhardt thinks "a psychologist" would be "able to figure it out" but ultimately a personal commitment must first come from him if any program is going to succeed.

"The only person that can really, truly help me get to where I need to go, obviously (that) starts with me," Earnhardt said. "Then it goes to Rick, Steve and those guys that are in your inner circle every week and are in your corner every week. My biggest problem, I think, is my confidence. I know what I've done in the past and I know that I've outran 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. When we would race in the Nationwide Series, we were so good and Matt (Kenseth) scared me in the title chases always because he was so damn good, too. We were fast every week and we walked into the Cup series and won some races off the bat and you just felt like you was born to do it.

"Then we had some struggles, but we had such an awesome year in 2004. The reason to believe in my abilities was there then and there was no doubt. You walked around and you felt good, you felt that every time you showed up, 'Man, we should be fine, this will work out.' That's missing and that will come back when you go to the racetrack and go run in the top-five two or three weeks in a row and you get up there and you do it in concession."

And Hendrick is optimistic that Letarte, 31, can turn things around.

Letarte, who has been with the company since he was a teenager, understands that there's more to building a team than just the equipment. He believes that once Earnhardt is indoctrinated into his shop's systems that success will follow.

"Good cars fixes a lot of things, but I think he's going to know that I have confidence in him," Letarte said. "That a building that has won nine championships and won the championship this year, won six races this year, builds Jimmie Johnson's cars and built Jeff Gordon's cars, when he walks around that building, he's going to see 85 guys that believe he can win races. I think they say success breeds success. Well, confidence breeds confidence, and he's going to see enough confidence in his race team that I believe he's going to have confidence when he goes on the racetrack.

"I know he can drive, I know he can win, I know our cars can win, and I'm excited to give him a platform week in and week out that he can display his talents."

Other crew chiefs have suffered from the pressure of being 'that guy' that makes the calls for NASCAR's most popular driver and the criticism that follows when results don't materialize. For example, Eury Jr.'s wife has given him an ultimatum -- her or the door -- should he ever return to that position.

But considering that Letarte is under the same roof as Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, pressure is part of his daily life. He believes the most important task is developing chemistry for the squad moving forward. That first opportunity will come when the team tests for Goodyear at Daytona on Dec. 15.

"I don't worry about the pressure," Letarte said. "If the spotlight bothered me, I would have been sunburned a long time ago from being Jeff Gordon's crew chief. As far as the relationship, I consider myself a pretty good people person. I consider that I read personalities very well. I think the two of us are going to make a really interesting combination. We're both very colorful people, he's a very witty guy, he's very witty, very smart, knows what he's talking about. Some days I'll be the guy to give him the hug and some days I'll be the guy that pushes him.

"It's not that easy, it's not black and white. If it was black and white, it wouldn't be a very tough job and anybody could do it. Not anybody can do it, and I'm really proud and it gives myself a lot of pride and it's the biggest compliment I've ever had that Rick Hendrick is giving me the opportunity to do it. It says he has a lot of faith in me, Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. has a lot of faith in me, and I have a lot of faith in them, and I'm hoping that will show up on the racetrack."

Earnhardt has been to his new shop on the Hendrick campus. He took his old crew out to lunch to thank them for their service and met the new team as well. Although Letarte lost his pit crew for the last two races of the season after the No. 48 crew fumbled at Texas, he says he'll start the season with his former men, whom he has total faith in.

As for Earnhardt, he just wants a fresh start. He has been spending a lot of time with Letarte just trying to get better acquainted before the new chapter begins.

"I'm anxious to get to the racetrack," Earnhardt said. "I'm looking forward to getting to work with Steve -- to work with and around the new guys on the team and build those relationships. I'm really anxious about that. I want to get that as solid as I can before I get to Daytona. I want to get comfortable with them and let them get comfortable with me. I want to give them the idea of what kind of driver they've got and give Steve as much information as he can have to feel comfortable about what we do.

"Steve made a good point the other day about how you go to Daytona and everything moves at a nice pace, then you get to Phoenix and it's wide open. You've got an hour of practice and then getting back in that grind is a culture shock. We need to be ready. We want to be prepared when we get to Phoenix, and I think we'll be just fine."