Once Lost, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Is Headed In The Right Direction Again

CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 28: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L), driver of the #88 National Guard/Amp Energy Chevrolet, talks with crew chief Steve Letarte (R) during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. trudged up the steps leading away from the Dover International Speedway garage, disappointment and frustration etched on his face.

On that sunny May day in 2010, Earnhardt Jr. reached a low point. During the race, his car was handling so poorly that he made an unscheduled pit stop to repair what he thought was a broken part.

But nothing was broken – at least on the car. His spirit, though, was a different story.

"We've been running like this for two years now," he said, dejected. "You kind of get used to it."

Asked what he thought would be a fix for the team, Earnhardt Jr. paused for such a long time, you wondered if he even heard the question.

Finally, he shrugged.

"There ain't no answer for that," he said. "I don't know. What do you think? I'm lost."

Two years later, what once was lost now is found. Earnhardt Jr. is enjoying by far the most consistent season of his career, is a bona fide NASCAR championship contender and enters this weekend's Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan as the most recent driver to win at the track.

In racing, where making a car faster can sometimes happen uncomfortably slow, Earnhardt Jr.'s turnaround from also-ran to title threat has been remarkable. As the team's performance has risen, so has the driver's attitude.

"He's as passionate and into the racing as I've seen him right now," Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne said Friday.

Earnhardt Jr., now a 37-year-old veteran, is using all the tools acquired over his 13-year career to put together a remarkably steady season. He has 15 top-10 finishes in 22 races and finished on the lead lap of the year's first 20 events – a NASCAR record.

There's no mystery why all this has happened so suddenly: It's Earnhardt Jr.'s relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte, which began at the start of the 2011 season. Letarte's boyish enthusiasm and endless optimism was a refreshing change for a driver who needed just that.

When Earnhardt Jr. arrived at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he brought crew chief Tony Eury Jr. from his previous team at Dale Earnhardt Inc. The two fought like family – mostly because they were. Earnhardt Jr. and Eury Jr. are first cousins (their mothers are sisters), but they acted more like brothers who couldn't let the other have the last word. As a driver/crew chief combination, the pair was too combustible to work.

So team owner Rick Hendrick separated the two after less than 50 races together, and in stepped the unproven and fiery Lance McGrew.

The change was met with derision from fans who root for the much-hyped Earnhardt Jr. to fail, and some drivers even piled on.

"It's never Junior; it's always the crew chief," Kyle Busch said following the move.

The message from the critics was clear: If Earnhardt Jr. and McGrew didn't work out, then surely everyone would know Earnhardt Jr. was the problem.

But McGrew's presence only made the situation worse. The crew chief was a hard-ass who wanted Earnhardt Jr. to adjust to his setups and berated the driver when things went wrong. Their public shouting matches on the team radio were reminiscent of a couple who needed a divorced but hadn't acknowledged reality yet.

Meanwhile, Earnhardt Jr.'s confidence and mood sunk lower and lower. Coming to the track was no longer a joy, and the already shy driver became more of a recluse. He finished 25th in points after the crew chief change in 2009 and was 21st in 2010. He was winless in both seasons and had just 13 top-10 finishes during those years (he already has more top-10s this season than in 2009-10 combined).

Hendrick, realizing the need for a change, shuffled his organization's crew chief lineup after driver Jimmie Johnson won his fifth straight title. He paired Mark Martin's crew chief Alan Gustafson with Jeff Gordon, moved Letarte from Gordon to Earnhardt Jr. and dumped McGrew on Martin's lap in his last year with the team (Martin promptly dropped from 13th in points to 22nd).

Immediately, the move made sense for Earnhardt Jr. His new crew chief was relentlessly positive, like a personal life coach who always had something encouraging to say – but he also demanded accountability and started asking more of Earnhardt Jr. than anyone had before.

Earnhardt Jr. was expected to be at the car 15 minutes before practice instead of just showing up at the last moment; he was required to be a part of mandatory team meetings and explain to Letarte in much detail about what the car did and didn't do.

"It's 180 degrees, really, the way I feel and approach the sport and my job now," Earnhardt Jr. said recently.

The chemistry was an immediate success, and Earnhardt Jr. finished seventh in last year's Chase. But despite several near-misses, his pesky winless streak continued.

Finally, in June, it all came together. Driving a Batman-themed car, Earnhardt Jr. crushed the field at Michigan and stormed to his first NASCAR Cup victory since he won four years ago at the same track.

The win was validation for how far he'd come in the last two years, but it mostly came with a sense of relief. In Earnhardt Jr.'s mind, winning races is how it should be – and with his opportunity, he knew there was much more to be done.

With four races before this season's playoffs begin, Earnhardt Jr. is considered to have a realistic shot at the championship – though he likely would need to find some more speed to be considered the favorite. Champions have to run up front and win multiple races, and Earnhardt Jr. knows his team isn't quite there yet.

Still, drivers like five-time champ Johnson have an eye on the No. 88 team.

"I think what I have seen with Steve and Junior, how consistent they've been and the laps they've led, they're real close to being on a hot streak," Johnson said Friday. "Yes, absolutely, they're a threat."

But even if he doesn't win the championship, the snickers and taunts from the anti-Earnhardt crowd have died down. Winning a race and being the points leader in mid-August tends to wash away the "all hype, no substance" chatter.

And you can bet he's noticed.

"I do feel a little bit vindicated to the people that considered I wouldn't ever be competitive again," he said. "Aside from winning a few more races, I don't know how much more of a statement I could have made than what we made this year."

Earnhardt Jr. is lost no more. NASCAR's most popular driver knows exactly where he wants to go.

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