The past two weeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the class of the field as it looked like a couple weeks ago at Pocono Raceway, he’d snap his 143-race winless streak. However, when it came to the strategy came, crew chief Steve LeTarte chose to be conservative after Earnhardt told him that he wouldn’t forgive him for running out of fuel. The result was Earnhardt’s 11th top 10 of the season.
Though everything went right at Michigan International Speedway as Earnhardt Jr. led 95 laps on his way to his 19th career victory.
“It shows the chemistry between Stevie and Dale, and they worked really hard,” team owner Rick Hendrick says. “It has been a great year. The car has been the most consistent out there. His 12 top-10 finishes, most in the series. We knew sooner or later if he's running that strong around the top 5, he's going to dominate a race……But, boy, to see him run like he did Sunday just made us all proud. It's a credit to the hard work that Stevie and his crowd have put together and the chemistry he has right now with he and Dale.”
In speaking of the hard work that has been put in, LeTarte says the guys on the race team are dedicated as they take whatever opportunity they can to go test somewhere or build a new car so therefore they continue improving.
“I think Dale has seen the hard work,” LeTarte adds. “He's put in a tremendous amount of hard work on his side. Those complement one another. I think that's the reason we've been able to get through the ups and downs.”
As a result, LeTarte says that they’ve built the trust between them so they can work together as well as they do.
LeTarte became Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief at the beginning of 2011. Hendrick says he chose to partner them together as a result of watching LeTarte’s people skills around the shop and how he handles his team.
“I'll give him 100 per cent total credit,” Hendrick adds. “I surprised him one afternoon about 3:00. No one knew what was going to happen. When I told him within 15 minutes he was in his car driving to Dale's house, and he said, ‘I'm going to sit down with Dale and we're just going to talk about racing, about life, about each other, what each of us want to accomplish.’”
LeTarte says going into it, he went in with a blank piece of paper.
“We didn't take any preconceived notions of what Dale's strengths or weaknesses were,” LeTarte says. “I personally didn't listen to anybody else's opinions on Dale. I learned a lot from Mr. Hendrick on how to deal with people and with relationships, and the most important thing is to create your own relationship firsthand. Dale and I did that.”
Hendrick applauds the approach that was taken as by LeTarte and Earnhardt Jr. spending a lot of time together from the get go, it helped built that trust factor that’s needed.
“Dale does not trust everybody,” Hendrick comments. “He doesn't think sometimes that he's taken in the right light. You see that more when his confidence isn't there. But when his confidence is switched on, I mean, he's convinced and he knows he's got the best in the garage. He believes that. He believes he's got the best crew chief and the best team.”
He says that sat down with Earnhardt and they discussed their concerns and strength, taking a methodical approach.
“We kind of walked before we could run and tried to run before we thought we could win,” LeTarte says. “It was trying on our patience when we started to see success last year. Of course, we wanted to push harder. But I was very proud at the patience everyone in the race team had. Mr. Hendrick has a tremendous amount of patience and allowed us to do everything we could to improve, giving us every tool possible.”
Earnhardt Jr. and LeTarte started off the 2011 season well with three top fives and eight top 10s in the first 15 races, though fell off as the season went on, finishing seventh in points.
“It's taken a while but we feel now we're kind of hitting our stride,” LeTarte says and that he is right.
With the hard work that they’ve put in this year, they have finished in the top five in almost half of the races (six) and finished in the top 10 in 80 per cent of the races (12) while completing all of the laps in the first 15 races. Earnhardt Jr. now sits second in points to Matt Kenseth, four points out of the lead.
Hendrick says the biggest surprise for him during this is when Earnhardt Jr. came out and said that he was the best driver in their camp, instead of saying his teammates were.
“When he came out and said, ‘I'm getting the job done, I'm the A horse in the stable right now’, and felt good about saying that, that just showed me that he was at max confidence,” Hendrick says. “That's what he needed, that's what he needs.
“When he gets that little stride, that little smile, that kind of notch in his step, he's starting having fun with it, and he starts playing with the guys on the radio when he's leading the race, that kind of reminds me of his dad. I love to see that.”
LeTarte says by Earnhardt saying that, it makes the race team feel good.
“Little things like that mean a lot to the race team because you have to think that,” LeTarte says. “If you don't think that on Sunday morning, then this sport's really, really tough. If you don't believe that you can go out and be the best, then it's really hard to try to do that.”
Hendrick adds that he’s excited ‘cause Earnhardt Jr. is having fun and looking forward to going to races.
Now looking back, Hendrick thinks that they are fortunate that this combination has worked out.
“Didn't have any idea it was going to be this good,” he says. “But I think that the chemistry between these two guys, and I've been doing this for 30 years, is as good as or better than any I've ever seen.”