End of Earnhardt's drought seems inevitable with Letarte at his side
Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his first Chase since 2008 with crew chief Steve Letarte
Letarte's biggest impact on Earnhardt has been in his communication with the team
Junior hasn't won in 129 races, which dates back to a June '08 victory in Michigan
CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. expresses shock that people care about his beard and how long he'll keep it. It's just a beard he says. Yet this one is a bit different. It's thick and bushy, a couple of days past manicured, a couple of days shy of mountain man.
And, of course, it's attached to NASCAR's most popular driver.
It is such details fans want to know. They want it all from Earnhardt. On the track and off it.
Just like crew chief Steve Letarte does.
Well, on the track, that is.
Earnhardt traces last year's turnaround to the demands Letarte put on him, requiring Earnhardt to do things he hadn't done before in his 11 previous Sprint Cup seasons. The result was that Earnhardt made the Chase for the first time since 2008. Although his Cup winless streak stretches more than three years, the thought of Earnhardt parking his car in Victory Lane this season seems realistic, if not expected.
"We need to get the zero out of the win column to have a great year,'' Letarte said about this season. "It's that simple.''
Letarte leaned on Earnhardt last year to provide more information and to be with the team more -- essentially, to be a member of the team, not just a driver for the team. That meant Earnhardt filling out forms that described how the car felt and what it did so Letarte had it in his files, something most drivers do. It also meant Earnhardt staying with the team throughout the day to be there for meetings about the car, something he hadn't been required to do before.
"As soon as I got to the truck in the morning, I never left until the day was over,'' Earnhardt said. "I never did that my entire career. I went back to the bus in between practices [previously]. I was never there early.
"I don't think I was realizing my full potential. I think [Letarte] made me understand those things that I thought were trivial were important to him and important to do his job.''
It helped that Earnhardt, who has struggled with his confidence at times, had success early last year.
A 10th-place finish at Phoenix in the season's second race was encouraging, but it was his eighth-place run at Las Vegas the following week that impacted Earnhardt the most.
"That's when I kind of had the idea that this guy was a good crew chief, was going to give me good cars, I was going to be able to count on him,'' Earnhardt said of Letarte.
The Vegas race was the second in a seven-race stretch where Earnhardt finished no worse than 12th and climbed to third in the points.
A midsummer slump dropped Earnhardt in the points and followed a pattern that has dogged him throughout his career. The problem is that Earnhardt's style doesn't fit as well with some of the tracks, particularly the road courses and Pocono.
That could change this year. Earnhardt noted that he's struggled at Homestead in the past, but finished 11th last year. He credited crew chief Kenny Francis, who joins Hendrick Motorsports this year with Kasey Kahne, with helping the team late last season, especially at Homestead.
"He has completely different ideas,'' Earnhardt said of Francis. "They go to certain places and they're really, really fast. We want to know how to tap into that.''
Earnhardt and Letarte also proved to be a potent combination. Earnhardt feared that as his friendship with Letarte grew, along with their success, Letarte might not be as hard on him this season. Earnhardt told Letarte during the offseason to continue to push him.
Not a problem.
"The day I'm not this demanding is that day that I'm not a very good crew chief,'' Letarte said. "You have to be demanding. I have some very talented people that do great work, but my job is to set the tone and be demanding and expect results. Expect commitment.''
Car owner Rick Hendrick says that the success Earnhardt and Letarte had last year makes him wish he would have paired them before last season.
"He's happy, he's confident,'' Hendrick said of Earnhardt. "Stevie is exactly what he needed. Stevie deserves a lot of credit. He gives him tough love. Dale respects that.''
Hendrick praises Letarte for helping Earnhardt provide better feedback about the car. One of the criticisms of Earnhardt was that his car wouldn't always improve as the race progressed. If the car didn't handle well, Earnhardt would get upset. He'd yell on the radio instead of giving detailed information. Eventually, Hendrick, not one to stir things in public, said that Earnhardt needed to change his ways.
And he is. That's more than just an attitude change with Earnhardt, though.
"A lot of that confidence is that the [crew chief] is going to help you, let him help you,'' Hendrick said.
Earnhardt knows more is required from him this season to win at least a race and fulfill Hendrick's goal of seeing all four teams make the Chase this season, with one winning the title.
"Steve is going to provide all the assistance and help he can,'' Earnhardt said. "I've got to understand the car better. I've got to give Steve the information he needs.''
About the car that is. The beard? It doesn't matter.
"People really want to know about the beard?'' Earnhardt asks.
Yes, he's told. Many people.
"Somebody grows a beard, they grow a bead,'' Earnhardt said. "I guess I just don't get it.
"I say like: I like it or I don't like it. I don't go: What's the timeline on that beard. I'd rather get the straightforward opinion rather than the evolution [of it].''
That's just what Letarte wants to know about the car -- the straightforward opinion. If that continues, Earnhardt won't face questions about his beard, or when he's going to win, but when he'll win next.