2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Steve Letarte
Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2012
Best points finish: 3rd (2003)
Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
Born: October 10, 1974
Something has to give. NASCAR’s perpetual Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has endured three years of mediocrity with the sport’s best team, putting his future in question. With finishes of 25th and 21st in points over the last two seasons, the glory of 18 career victories has faded as some question whether The Intimidator’s son even has the talent to run inside the top 10.
Earnhardt is something of an enigma at Hendrick Motorsports, his tenure defined by flashes of brilliance while looking like he’s in over his head far too often. But he’s not simply the spoiled son of a legend as some now believe. Mediocre drivers don’t achieve top-5 points finishes (three), Daytona 500 victories (one), and over 1,000 laps led in three straight seasons. Earnhardt was once one of the best restrictor plate drivers in the business, putting on clinics on how to drive at Daytona and Talladega, and the stats show success on just about every type of track NASCAR has to offer, sans road courses. Clearly, the talent is there; the driver is just no longer connecting to it.
After an ugly ending to 2010, when Earnhardt’s confidence once again dipped considerably, team owner Rick Hendrick knew more major changes were needed. So out went crew chief Lance McGrew, part of a swap among three teams that saw Earnhardt land with Steve Letarte. Calling Letarte his “people person,” Hendrick thinks the duo’s laid-back personas could prove the perfect fit.
“Letarte and Junior have a relationship. I’m not sure if it’s from online racing or fantasy football,” Hendrick joked last fall before turning serious. “Junior has lot of respect for Steve, and Steve has a lot of insight on Junior because he’s mentioned it to me a couple of times in debriefs. I feel like Dale needs a guy he can communicate with, who has a proven track record and a really great team. (Letarte) knows how to get close to people.”
Getting close to Junior is the ultimate challenge. He can be difficult to communicate with even in the best of times, with the last three years defined by requests for changes that made his car worse. Frustration doesn’t sit well with Earnhardt; once there’s agitation, things can spiral rapidly downhill. Earnhardt needs a delicate balance of cheerleader and taskmaster, one Hendrick hopes he’s found in Letarte, who called the shots for Jeff Gordon in 2010. Gordon and Letarte had an ugly year, defined by poor pit calls that cost them wins. And with former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and Letarte holding similar personalities, is buddy/buddy really the answer for a driver who’s only excelled with a disciplinarian like father figure Tony Eury Sr. on top of the pit box?
The Letarte partnership means Earnhardt moves up the hill at the Hendrick complex this year, taking over what was Gordon’s team and chassis. He and Letarte will be paired with champion teammate Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. The two teams collaborate heavily, and Earnhardt’s driving style is more similar to Johnson’s than former shopmate Mark Martin’s. If the teams can work closely, Earnhardt will benefit from their vast knowledge, a truly enviable position when coupled with the quality of Hendrick chassis and engines.
Despite his woes in 2010, Earnhardt finished all 36 events, the best among the Hendrick stable and a reminder that he still takes care of equipment. Plenty of support remains from sponsors AMP Energy Drink and the National Guard, as well as his huge fan base.
The difficult part will be to sort these changes out quickly. There was little rhyme or reason to Earnhardt’s 2010 season. The only places where he showed real consistency were Daytona and Loudon, two vastly different tracks. The logical place to start will be the intermediate program, but short tracks, road courses and even restrictor plate strategy must be addressed.
The question at Hendrick is how many people still genuinely believe in Earnhardt, whose contract runs through 2012. Clearly, the owner feels he’s now given the driver everything needed to make it work. It’s now a matter of whether Earnhardt’s style is simply a round peg that will never fit inside an organization of Hendrick squares.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
The term that best describes Dale Jr. is “stressed out.” “He’s got the world’s biggest monkey on his back,” says a rival crew chief. “(New crew chief) Steve Letarte may help him shed that monkey. Stevie’s good at building confidence, and he may be exactly what Junior needs.”
Another crew chief says, “OK, it’s established that he’s got the ability to win races, so why can’t he do it anymore? The losses have piled up on him. He’s got to find his self-confidence.”
Another says, “I’m not so sure about that. If he’s choking under pressure, then he’s fooling me. I just think you’ve got have the right combination, and he hasn’t really had it since ‘Pops” (Tony Eury Sr.) worked with him. He’s got to find another combination that really works, and half the guys in this sport are in the same boat. It’s nothing like as simple as people on the outside think.”
Looking at Checkers: Despite all the plate talk, Richmond is statistically a better play.
Pretty Solid Pick: OK, the plate tracks: Some of the magic is gone, but the ability is still there.
Good Sleeper Pick: He may not win Bristol, but he can still click off top 10s.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Homestead and Infineon are the only tracks where he’s failed to score a top 10.
Insider Tip: The CoT has really thrown Junior for a loop. We’ll see if Steve Letarte’s presence makes a difference.
Top 5s: 3
Top 10s: 8
Laps Led: 185
Laps Completed: 10,710
Lead Lap Finishes: 24
Bonus Points: 40
Races Led: 7
Average Start: 19.0
Average Finish: 18.6
After First 26 Races: 19th
Final Points Standing: 21st
Driver Rating: 75.7 (22nd)