Is the championship window for NASCAR's "Most Popular Driver" closing?
The driver known to legions of race fans simply as “Junior” turned 40 in 2014, but Earnhardt appeared rejuvenated. With four victories, he doubled his total with Hendrick Motorsports and completed his best season across the board in a decade. Earnhardt drew first blood in the new “win and you’re in” Chase format, capturing the Daytona 500, and he crossed an item off his personal bucket list when he won the fall race at Martinsville.
Earnhardt had extra incentive to win races and contend for his first Cup title. Early in 2014, crew chief Steve Letarte announced that he’d be stepping down at season’s end to pursue a career in television. Earnhardt, who credits Letarte with salvaging his Cup career, wanted his longtime partner to go out on a high note.
It was a run of bad luck in the Chase that kept the third-generation driver from holding the big trophy, part of a shocking Chase in which all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers — winners of 13 of 36 races in 2014 — failed to make the Final Four at Homestead.
Following those results, the organization hopes a new personnel mix will change its luck in 2015. Of course, there will be a new voice in Earnhardt’s head, as Greg Ives steps in for Letarte. Ives, who guided Chase Elliott to the 2014 Nationwide Series title, was the engineer on Jimmie Johnson’s team before teaming with Elliott. He’s a product of the Hendrick system and should fit well with Earnhardt, who excels with a crew chief who keeps him focused on the big picture. Ives, who shadowed Letarte for the better half of 2014, is already well integrated with Earnhardt, a driver who needs time to build confidence in this type of relationship. While Ives is not as much of a cheerleader on top of the box, the hope is that Earnhardt has matured enough in the past few years that he no longer will need his crew chief to motivate him.
Earnhardt is a good fit in the Hendrick Motorsports stable. He and Jimmie Johnson work well together, and the two like a similar feel in their cars. Hendrick gives them the best equipment money can buy in both chassis and engines. The pit crew, typically strong, will be the only piece of the puzzle that’s a bit untested. Three of Earnhardt’s over-the-wall members, along with car chief Jason Burdett, have moved on post-Letarte.
Earnhardt will have new backing this year from Nationwide Insurance, which joins his team for 21 races, replacing the National Guard. Diet Mountain Dew and AMP Energy drink return as well, although the organization is still looking for additional backing. The struggle to fund Earnhardt, a perennial choice by fans as the series’ Most Popular Driver, is puzzling at best, concerning for NASCAR at worst.
Here’s the key number for Earnhardt: zero, the number of victories he’s earned for each season he debuts with a new crew chief. Earnhardt should make the Chase, however he likely won’t start jelling perfectly with this new pairing until 2016.
Taking advantage Earnhardt benefited from Hendrick horsepower in his sweep of the Pocono races and up-front runs at Michigan and Indianapolis in 2014. If it appears that his Hendrick team has its usual advantage in the motor department, he’ll be a favorite during the summer portion of the schedule.
Daytona stealth His Daytona 500 win was atypical because he led 54 laps en route to the win. It was the only race in his last six Daytona attempts that he led a single lap. His 14th-place finish after averaging a 26.2-place running position in the July race was more like the current iteration of Earnhardt at DIS.
Strong closer The ends of races tend to work in Earnhardt’s favor. The diligent closer gained 1.9 and 1.1 positions in the final tenth of races in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: Nationwide Insurance, Diet Mountain Dew/AMP Energy, Kelley Blue Book
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Greg Ives
Year With Current Team: 8th
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 3rd (2003)
Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
Born: Oct. 10, 1974
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Photos by Action Sports, Inc.