Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ready for a New Year and a fresh start with NASCAR’s new Generation 6 car.
And as comfortable as Earnhardt has become with crew chief Steve Letarte over the past two seasons, there’s no reason why the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team shouldn’t persevere in 2013.
Earnhardt was on course to make 2012 his best Sprint Cup season since joining the organization in 2008. He won at Michigan, led the points standings for two weeks and qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup was never in doubt.
While some of the competition caught up to Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt still seemed primed for the playoffs until he suffered a concussion at Talladega in October -- one compounded by an earlier testing crash at Kansas Speedway on Aug. 29 -- that sidelined the driver for two races in the middle of the Chase.
Earnhardt made a full recovery and competed in the final four races. With the exception of laps led (358 in 2012 compared to 896 in 2008) and inevitably finishing 12th in the points standings, he showed tremendous progress by posting 10 top fives and 20 top-10 finishes.
Still, if Earnhardt remains healthy and adapts quickly to the Gen 6 car, there’s no reason not to expect the No. 88 National Guard team to make a run at the title.
“The sport is going to be revolutionized again with this (new) car,” Earnhardt said last month during a test for the new car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “There are a lot of unknowns but I’m with a great company that does really well under those circumstances ... they can figure out how to be competitive. They can figure it out faster than most people and I’m fortunate in that regard.
“So I can be confident. I’m confident that we can put good cars on the track and I’m going to like the way they drive and I’m going to enjoy the races we have.”
The depth of Hendrick Motorsports is an automatic advantage. With 600-plus employees, Earnhardt is not boasting when he says the company excels at research and development. In 2007, when the Car of Tomorrow model was introduced to the Sprint Cup Series on a part-time basis, Hendrick won half of the races.
Unfortunately, Earnhardt was never a fan of that car – as evidenced by just two of his 19 career victories coming in that car’s era.
"The COT was just frustrating for me, I had good runs and good races in it, and races where the car drove well and was comfortable,” Earnhardt said. “But I never really connected with that car from the very beginning.”
With the new car, Earnhardt is cautiously optimistic. Although he’d not driven the Gen 6 prior to the Charlotte test, he believes the “car has really awesome potential” and the “body on the car itself behaves better aerodynamically,” which should promote more competitive racing.
“I like it already leaps and bounds over the COT – the old car that we ran,” Earnhardt said. “This car really gives me a lot of sensations that are similar to the old car that we ran 10 years ago. But it’s still early. I’m trying not to get too excited ... there’s still a lot to learn.”
Letarte feels the team was at a disadvantage during the second half of the season because of a lack of speed. While he was confident in his driver and team personnel, the caliber of their cars weren’t fast enough to maintain the No. 88 team’s advantage.
“Every season you race 36 times and of those 36 times I think last year there were two races we were the dominant car,” Letarte said. “We won one of them. The first Pocono (race) we had the dominant car. We didn’t win. Of those 34 that are left, there are four or five where we probably put ourselves in position on pit strategy.
“To become a dominant team, you need enough speed that you’re the dominant car in four or five races and then you put yourself into position for another six or seven races. It’s really just math and that comes down to speed.
“I thought we had great pit stops. I thought our pit strategy was as good as anyone’s. From time to time we had mistakes with pit strategy but really no more than any other team. I think we needed more speed to overcome adversity. I think we had that in the middle of the summer and it showed with our results.”
If Letarte can regain the momentum the team had prior the Chase, that will be half the battle. He must also develop a wide comfort zone for his driver with this new car. But Letarte agrees with Earnhardt that the organization that figures out the new car package first will benefit substantially.
Between now and Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway in February, Hendrick Motorsports will be working overtime to acclimate to the new car at the shop, in the wind tunnel and on the racetrack.
“It’s simple,” Letarte said. “The faster you go, the easier the races are to call, the less pressure there is on the driver on the restarts, the less pressure there is on the pit crew. Even as much as it takes to run well in NASCAR and the Sprint Cup Series, it comes down to lap times. If you’re a faster car, so much opens up that it takes a lot of pressure off of everybody and you find yourself make less mistakes trying to overcome a slower car.
“When you run well, you have more confidence going back to the track that you can do it again. As a crew chief you might have more confidence to push the envelope on the setup because you have one in your back pocket that might be close ... you have to use what momentum there is but also look at the nuts and bolts of it. A faster car makes for a whole lot more confidence and really helps with the momentum. It really starts with the race car, as simple as it sounds.”
Earnhardt insists he’s entering 2013 with a positive outlook. He realizes that starting the season off right – as he did by maintaining a top-five presence throughout the regular season in 2012 – will benefit the team tremendously.
“The first 10 races are the most important races we have as far as making the Chase and putting down a good foundation of points,” Earnhardt said. “If you end up after those first 10 races around eighth or ninth or 10th, that seems to be where you end up fighting all year long to try to stay in the Chase. It’s a real tough mental battle. It wears on the team. It wears on the drivers that are in those positions. So it’s nice to get out front early and stay there and I think we’re in a good position.”