2011 RESULTS 0 wins, 4 top fives, 12 top 10s
2012 OUTLOOK Having broken out of his long slump, NASCAR's most popular driver will speed to a second straight Chase.
IT WAS JUST ONE MOMENT OUT OF THE GRUELING nine-month marathon that is the NASCAR schedule, but it revealed the profound change that Dale Earnhardt Jr. underwent in 2011. Last April 15 Earnhardt sat beneath a large white tent in the infield of Talladega Superspeedway and watched the raindrops fall from the dark Alabama sky. A Sprint Cup practice session had been washed out, but that did nothing to dampen the spirits of NASCAR's most popular driver who, because of a desperate move made by his team owner the previous winter, was enjoying a career renaissance. "For the first time in a long time, I'm having fun again," said Earnhardt. "My confidence was shot last year. I've still got a ways to go, but man, my whole world is enjoyable again."
Before the 2011 season began team owner Rick Hendrick shook up his 550-person organization, reassigning the pit crews of three of his four drivers: Earnhardt, who had struggled to a 21st-place finish in the point standings in '10, was attached to Jeff Gordon's former crew, including pit boss Steve Letarte; Gordon switched to Mark Martin's team; and Martin inherited Earnhardt's crew. "We had to do something," Hendrick says. "We may have won the championship [with Jimmie Johnson], but if you looked closely, you could see that other teams had caught us. I felt Dale needed a new situation."
For the last few seasons Earnhardt's fatal flaw had been a maddening tendency to fade late in races. When he became frustrated with a poor handling car, Earnhardt, who is introspective by nature, had tended to fall silent over the radio, failing to tell his crew chief what needed to be done to give his car more speed.
But in 2011 Letarte, a natural-born talker who is perhaps the most optimistic man in all of motor sports, compensated for that. The 32-year-old crew chief was constantly in Earnhardt's ear during races. "I'm a cheerleader, and I let Dale know I'm with him," Letarte says. "I won't let him get down. There's no situation we can't handle and figure out. That's the attitude we have and it's a big reason why we've clicked."
For the first time since 2008, Earnhardt—now 37 and a 13-year Cup veteran—qualified for the Chase. Though he ultimately finished seventh in points and is currently sitting on a 129-race winless skid (his last win came at Michigan more than three years ago), the '11 season was clearly a step forward for his number 88 team. "We're getting closer to where we need to be, and that's contending for wins and, ultimately, contending for championships," Earnhardt says. "Steve has been the perfect crew chief for me, and I think our future together is pretty damn bright. We just have to find a little more speed in our cars, and we'll be right where we need to be."
Can Earnhardt develop into a bona fide title contender? The statistics suggest he has a ways to go. Last season he had just four top five finishes (though it was his best total since 2008), and he led only 52 total laps—the fewest of his career. But he did spend eight weeks of the regular season ranked fourth or higher in the point standings, and more significant, he committed fewer mistakes behind the wheel than he did in '10.
"Trust me, Dale has the raw talent to be a champion, but the team is still growing," says Hendrick. "I believe in him, and I was encouraged by the improvements he and Stevie showed through the season. I really believe their best days are still ahead of them. I told Dale when he came here [in 2008] that I wouldn't let him down and I wouldn't let him fail. And I'm not."