RICHMOND, Va. — One of these days — and that day may come very soon — Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win a Sprint Cup race and put an end to what several writers have facetiously called NASCAR’s “long national nightmare.”
Earnhardt last tasted victory in the Cup series on June 15, 2008 at Michigan, not quite halfway through the first year of a lucrative contract with Hendrick Motorsports.
Since that race, Earnhardt has changed crew chiefs twice, a testament to his struggles to master the new racecar NASCAR introduced in 2007 and incorporated into the series full-time in 2008. He finished 25th in the final standings in 2009 and 21st in 2010.
When owner Rick Hendrick’s bold reshuffling of personnel after the 2010 season matched Earnhardt with Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon’s former crew chief, Earnhardt’s performance improved. In 2011, he qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time since 2008 and ended the season seventh in the standings.
Earnhardt’s performance this year has put to rest any notion that last year’s success with Letarte was merely the sort of honeymoon that sometimes accompanies a crew chief change. Yes, Earnhardt’s winless streak grew to 138 races Saturday night at Richmond, but consider the rest of the story.
Since his last victory in 2008, Earnhardt has finished second seven times and third four times. Two of those runner-up finishes have come this year, most recently on Saturday night. Likewise, Earnhardt has fashioned two of his third-place runs this season, giving him four top-three finishes in nine races this year.
In seven of nine races, he has finished in the top 10. As a measure of his consistency this season, Earnhardt’s WORST finish this season is a 15th at Bristol. In the third race of the season, at Las Vegas, Earnhardt led more laps (70) than he had all last year (52).
Saturday night’s runner-up finish propelled Earnhardt to second in the Cup standings, five points behind series leader Greg Biffle.
All the numbers argue that Earnhardt is every bit as close to a breakthrough win as he believes he is.
A newfound maturity behind the wheel is part of the equation. When Hendrick announced the pairing with Letarte, one of Earnhardt’s first reactions was that he would have to tone down his language on the radio — because Letarte’s wife and children would be listening.
As a consequence, the invective that permeated Earnhardt’s radio chatter with cousin Tony Eury Jr., who served as crew chief until mid-2009, has all but disappeared.
“I’ve always been uncensored, (but) I think I’ve gotten a lot better since working with Steve,” Earnhardt said Friday before opening practice at Richmond. “Obviously, Steve is not family, and there are things you can say to your family, and you won’t say those things to other people.”
Instead of cussing his car, Earnhardt has learned to choose his words more carefully, and the quality of his feedback has improved.
“He’s definitely made me more accountable . . . for the words I choose to use and how I choose to describe the car to him,” Earnhardt said of his crew chief. “He’s not going to put up with me verbally abusing him or the equipment. I wouldn’t expect anything less than him being a professional as well.”
The performance on the racetrack is a litmus test of just how proficient the driver/crew chief collaboration has become.
When Rick Hendrick hired Earnhardt in 2008, his stated goal was to win races and championships. Those who scoffed at the notion and insisted that Earnhardt was merely a cash cow with a gift for moving merchandise from his fleet of trackside trailers are about to stop laughing.
Earnhardt will win a race this season, sooner rather than later, and he’ll likely win more than one. Hendrick will get his coveted 200th Cup win, and Earnhardt may be the one to deliver it.
That achievement would pale in comparison, however, to an 11th Cup title for the organization. Given the consistency of Earnhardt’s performance this year, seats at the head table for the Sprint Cup awards banquet aren’t out of the question for the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet and his crew chief.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author