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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Climbing Way Back to the Top After Resurgent 2014 Season

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

To understand the immense popularity of Dale Earnhardt Jr., a history lesson is in order. And no one is more qualified to deliver it than Earnhardt Jr. himself. He did so shortly after striding into the media center at Martinsville Speedway last October. After years of trying and coming up short, he finally had won there to claim the coveted grandfather clock that comes with a victory at the tricky .526-mile short track that has been hosting NASCAR races since 1949.

Even before the champagne from Victory Lane had dried on his fire suit, Earnhardt Jr. already was mentally putting the accomplishment into big-picture perspective. Looking around, he said: “You know, I love the history of the sport and just can’t get enough of things like all these old pictures on the wall in here. I know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport.

“I’ve been coming here so many years. I’ve been coming here since the early 1980s, watching races here. Dad won several races here, brought home several clocks. I remember one in particular that set at the front door, in the hall by the stairs. It had this little round rug right in that hallway that I’d run my Matchbox cars on, listening to the race on (the radio on) Motor Racing Network.”

The point was, he always wanted one of those clocks for his own. And now that he finally had one, he deeply appreciated it.

“The clock seems so hard to get,” he added. “I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it’s a team deal, but this is very personal and very special for me to be able to win here.”

Heck, after the previous decade of mostly wandering in the winless wilderness in the Sprint Cup Series, any win for Earnhardt Jr. was special. But the 2014 season was different, lending hope to Earnhardt and his vast Junior Nation of fans that it was possibly setting the table for even greater accomplishments in 2015.

Yes, Earnhardt Jr. is the son of a legendary NASCAR Hall of Famer and seven-time Cup champion, the late Dale Earnhardt.

But he isn’t his father and never claimed to be. Plus, he’s always seemed to have a deep sense of appreciation for his special place in the sport. Whereas others might have come to loathe the constant comparisons to a legendary father, Earnhardt Jr. always has deftly deflected those comparisons while at the same time embracing his own growing legacy over the years.

And as the years have passed, Earnhardt Jr. has increasingly seemed more comfortable in his own skin. In 2014, he was able to translate that into more success on the track with crew chief Steve Letarte and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.

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The season began with a win in the Daytona 500 in February. It was Earnhardt Jr.’s second career victory in NASCAR’s biggest race, coming a decade after his first, and it set the tone for a season in which three more victories would follow — at both Pocono races and then at Martinsville.

The four wins represented the most for Earnhardt Jr. in a single season since he also began a season with winning the Daytona 500 in 2004, when he went on to capture a career-high six races.

While it was disappointing that Earnhardt Jr. was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup when the field was trimmed from 12 drivers to eight after the Contender Round, he and Letarte still said they were proud of what they accomplished in their final season together. After four seasons leading Earnhardt Jr.’s team, Letarte is moving to the NBC broadcast booth as a NASCAR analyst in 2015 and will be replaced on the No. 88 pit box by Greg Ives.

“I definitely would put it as a successful year,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “Instead of running up the stairs to the top, we’ve had to take one step a year. Finally we’re getting to where we’re winning some races.”

Letarte adds: “Shame on us if we would have let getting eliminated from the Chase overshadow all that we accomplished on the season. … One of the things I was most proud of was the fact that at Martinsville, seven short days after we were eliminated, this team performed. They came to work. You wouldn’t have known whether we were the championship leader or eliminated from the Chase when you walked into the garage that Friday. And it showed on Sunday afternoon when we won.”

All eyes now are on Ives, a 35-year-old Michigan native who is very familiar with Earnhardt Jr. — and vice versa.

Ives served as the championship-winning crew chief for Chase Elliott in the Nationwide Series in 2014. Elliott drove the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, which Earnhardt Jr. owns along with his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, and Rick Hendrick, who of course supplied Earnhardt Jr. with the cars he drives in the Sprint Cup Series.

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Ives also worked for Hendrick Motorsports as an engineer on driver Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team for five of Johnson’s six Cup championships. He says he plans to take a practical approach to his new job, knowing lots of people will be keeping a close watch on every move he makes.

“We all have our jobs to do,” says Ives, who also gained experience as Regan Smith’s Nationwide Series crew chief for JR Motorsports in 2013. “I’m very focused and strict on what I do each week. But it always comes around to the people you put around you, too. I have great engineers … I have the people in place to make all this happen. “

Elliott has no doubt that Earnhardt Jr. is in good hands. After spending just one season with Ives on top of his pit box, Elliott came away mightily impressed, not only with the calls and adjustments to the race cars that Ives routinely made, but with the way he helped foster a great team chemistry.

“I think Greg is very deserving of this opportunity,” Elliott says. “And I think anybody who is wondering about the change, I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the results and the effort and the teamwork and the way that Greg treats people. I’m talking not about just the guy driving his car, but the people who work on the cars and everybody. He treats people the way they should be treated. Nobody’s role means any more than anybody else’s role, and I think Greg has a great understanding of that. He obviously has the smarts and whatnot to do the job. But I think the biggest thing is his leadership.”

Letarte says his advice to Ives is simple: Be yourself. It wasn’t until after years of working under Ray Evernham and Robbie Loomis at Hendrick Motorsports that Letarte was given his first shot at being a crew chief. Then he worked alongside the great Chad Knaus, Johnson’s six-time championship-winning crew chief, in the same building at the HMS complex even after becoming crew chief first for Jeff Gordon and then for Earnhardt Jr.

“Greg Ives needs to be Greg Ives,” Letarte says. “That’s what I learned. I got to work with Ray Evernham, who was spectacular, and Robbie, who is great, but I learned to be me. I didn’t try to be Chad, Robbie or Ray. I just tried to be my own man, and I think Greg Ives should do the same thing.”

In their four years together, Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. developed a close friendship and a tight chemistry that eventually carried over to the race track. But none of that happened overnight.

They went winless their first season together in 2011 and a total of 50 races before earning their first win as a team at Michigan in June 2012. Then they went another 55 races without a win before visiting Victory Lane in the 2014 Daytona 500.

In other words, these things can take time. Earnhardt Jr. is well aware of that.

“I think me and Greg could get off to a great start. I think we could get off to a mediocre start. You never know when you get to working together,” Earnhardt Jr. says.

In addition to losing Letarte, car chief Jason Burdett also left the No. 88 team for a new job at JR Motorsports, and several pit-crew members are leaving to join the new No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team of driver Carl Edwards. That’s a whole lot of change to overcome, but Earnhardt Jr. says one of the keys is that the team’s lead engineer, Kevin Meendering, remains to help ease the transition for Ives.

As fellow engineers, Meendering and Ives should be able to speak the same language when it comes to figuring out how to consistently put fast race cars under NASCAR’s most popular driver. But again, Earnhardt Jr. cautions that it may take more time than the offseason had to offer. Plus, there is no substitute for the experience gained in actual race weekends over testing and crunching numbers back at the shop.

“Kevin is going to be a big key player in all this, helping Greg sort of really round the bases and get up to speed on what we’ve been working on in the past year and the tendencies that I have as a driver and things that I will and won’t like,“ Earnhardt Jr. says. “We’ve got to be open to Greg’s ideas and some new ideas and fresh ideas, also, so all that stuff has got to sort of counterbalance itself out. That’s a bit of a work in progress. I don’t think it happens immediately in the offseason.”

The man known simply as “Junior” to fans who have voted him recipient of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award 12 years running turned 40 years old last October. Time is running out for him to win his first Sprint Cup championship, but he says he’s OK with that as long as he can continue to win races.

Nonetheless, it is a potentially difficult and risky time for Earnhardt Jr. to be coping with all these changes. He says he remembers when he was much younger and winning seemed so routine that he somewhat took it for granted.

“I was so young back then,” he says. “I think the older you get, you definitely come to appreciate how challenging it is, how the competition is very difficult, how so many guys are capable of winning.

“But it’s not easy. You don’t have all these awesome years where you’re piling up wins, hitting homers every week. I mean, I can’t believe I’m 40 years old and still doing this, still successful at it, still with a great team. … It’s something that I hope I can sustain and hopefully be fortunate enough to be with this group for many years. We might have as good an opportunity (in 2015) and maybe the year after that to win a championship. But winning races is the priority. I don’t know that I’d be that damn happy about winning a championship had we not won any races (last) year. Winning these races definitely is still a whole lot of fun.”

— Written by Joe Menzer for Athlon Sports