LONG POND, Pa. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte were as much a comedy team around the garage as they were championship contenders last season.
Carefree and cracking jokes, Earnhardt and his crew chief were best buds, one-liners flowing as often as victory lane champagne.
"Everything's on the table as far as conversation," Earnhardt said.
The chemistry on the Hendrick Motorsports team led to Earnhardt's career renaissance in the No. 88 Chevrolet. He won the Daytona 500, swept Pocono Raceway and was in the thick of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship until the final races.
Like so many great comedy duos, Earnhardt and Letarte split up.
Letarte took his open mic skills to the NBC Sports broadcast booth. Greg Ives, a race engineer for Jimmie Johnson's record run of five consecutive championships, was team owner Rick Hendrick's No. 1 choice to replace Letarte.
Light on laughs, Earnhardt and Ives have clicked on the track. They have eight top 10s, won at Talladega and are fifth in the points standings.
And they're back Pocono, where Earnhardt reigns as the defending race winner. Earnhardt won both races on the tri-oval track last season and is trying to become the third driver in Pocono history to win here three straight times.
Tim Richmond swept in 1987 and won the June 1987 race and Bobby Allison swept in 1982 and won the June 1983 race.
There's another streak on the line, as well: Hendrick drivers have won the last five Pocono races (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne have the other three).
"We've just got really good stuff," Earnhardt said. "Your car really shines here, whereas the driver is a little bit of a factor."
Earnhardt was a major factor last season and seemed poised to win his first Sprint Cup championship. He stamped himself a legitimate contender at Pocono when he became the first driver to sweep both races at the track since Denny Hamlin in 2006.
In June, Brad Keselowski gift-wrapped the win when he yielded the lead with five laps left in a desperate attempt to clear debris from his grille and cool his overheated engine.
Keselowski's gamble backfired — he couldn't get the draft needed from the lapped traffic to clear his car and make one final pass for the win on Earnhardt. Earnhardt led three Hendrick drivers in the top 10.
In August, Earnhardt said before the race the No. 88 was better than his winner in June and he proved it when he held off the hard-charging Kevin Harvick down the stretch for the win. Earnhardt swept a track for the first time since Talladega in 2002.
"Miss not heading to @ poconoraceway," Letarte tweeted this week. "Last year was a blast."
Earnhardt said Letarte made all the right calls in both races.
"Steve got real aggressive on his pit calls and that's what's going to put you in position to win," he said. "We also had a fast car. Ran pretty well."
Earnhardt would love to three-peat — and repeat the sweep — at Pocono.
And maybe have some fun.
"We're just really all business right now, for the time being," Earnhardt said. "We win some more races, we can get more jovial."
Long NASCAR's most popular driver, Earnhardt has connected even more with his Junior Nation on Twitter — 1 million followers and counting. He tweets about the treehouse he's having built in his backyard or about being a regular barfly on his days off.
Ives is widely regarded as one of the most detail-oriented guys at Hendrick.
He cut his teeth while working under Johnson's longtime crew chief, Chad Knaus — arguably the most cunning and calculated guy in the NASCAR garage. Ives guided Chase Elliott to the 2014 Xfinity Series championship at JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by Earnhardt.
"He's not the jokester Steve was," Earnhardt said. "The lounge is a lot more business, less jokes, less talk about family and what happened last week.
"I don't know Greg well enough. We're working on our relationship and we have a lot of trust in each other. The relationship will continue to get better the more we work together."
Ives said two distinct personalities has worked to their advantage when the pressure rises late in a race
"I try to stay as even-keeled as possible, try not to get too high or too low," he said. "Sometimes that hurts us. If Dale is one way or the other, I try to be the opposite of him at that point. When he gets excited, I have to calm him down. When he's down, I've got to pick him back up."
With or without a laugh track, Earnhardt and Ives share common goals of winning races — and a championship.