News & Media


Caraviello: Earnhardt perseveres at RIR, prepares for next step

September 12, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte share a laugh after finishing 16th at RIR and securing a spot in the Chase.

RICHMOND, Va. -- Drivers know only thing worse than missing Chase is getting in, running poorly

At the end, the thing was a smoldering husk. Tape that had been used to keep the right-front together had bunched and melted into a gooey black mess. The grille was bent in as if someone had kicked it with a steel-toed boot. Smoke emanated from underneath the wheel wells. Pieces of sheet metal had peeled away to the point where an onlooker could easily glimpse the pipes and tubes within. It was amazing the car had finished at all, much less held out long enough to squeeze Dale Earnhardt Jr. back into the Chase.

"We're lucky the radiator stayed in it," crew chief Steve Letarte said.

"The car was tore up a lot more than Dale thought. I think that was a lot of his frustration. It's not my job to explain that to him. It's my job to keep him driving the wheels off it all night long."

--STEVE LETARTE

The green and white No. 88 was damaged worse than Earnhardt, or most anybody else, realized after it struck Clint Bowyer's vehicle early in Saturday night's event at Richmond International Raceway. But the end result saw a smiling Earnhardt receiving congratulations from teammates and crewmen, after his 16th-place result was enough to put NASCAR's most popular driver back in the sport's postseason for the first time since 2008. It was a trying and at times testy evening, but ultimately Earnhardt secured the top-20 finishing position he needed to keep Brad Keselowski behind him and slide into the 10th and final guaranteed Chase spot by a relatively comfortable margin.

"I wasn't worried at all," Earnhardt said. "I had seen race cars run good at short tracks before, and I figured we had all night to fix it. I felt like if we were a good enough team, we'd get the job done. Brad had to run his ass off to win the race, to run in the top-five to make it tough on us. He almost did that, but I felt good. I knew my team could fix the car good enough, and if everything felt the right way for us as far as them cautions and getting them lucky dogs, getting an opportunity to work on the car, we'd be fine."

That said, there were a few moments where it felt like it was all coming apart. The damage suffered in the eighth-lap accident with Bowyer crippled Earnhardt's car sufficiently enough to where the vehicle was terribly difficult to handle. Twice he was lapped and needed the free pass to get back among the leaders. Meanwhile Keselowski charged into the top five, threatening to crack the top 10 in the standings -- which would have knocked Earnhardt out of the Chase altogether. At one point, Earnhardt was holding on to his position by a precarious two points. The hamstrung vehicle and the stressful situation created some tense times over the radio, as Earnhardt complained about his car and Letarte deployed every motivational tactic in his arsenal.

"Got to think big picture," Letarte told him.

"I can't think of the big picture," Earnhardt responded, "because I can't really see it."

Over time, the car improved enough to get Earnhardt back into the top 20, where he needed to finish to guarantee himself a Chase berth regardless of what Keselowski did. Getting there, though, was an adventure. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, the damage was severe enough that Letarte was reticent to open the hood -- he was afraid he wouldn't get it closed it again. A sometimes-testy Earnhardt questioned his setup. "We need to do something else, because it ain't working, what we're trying," he said over the radio. Again and again, Letarte preached patience and positivity, doing what he needed to get his car and driver to the end.

"It was a patience-tester for sure," said Letarte, who was added to the No. 88 team prior to this season partly because of his calming demeanor over the radio. "The car was tore up a lot more than Dale thought. I think that was a lot of his frustration. It's not my job to explain that to him. It's my job to keep him driving the wheels off it all night long. ... We know we have to be faster in the Chase, no sugar-coating that. But gosh darn it, we're in it, so we have a chance."

Yes, they do. Making the Chase was clearly a relief for a driver and a program burdened by expectations, something very evident in the faces of the No. 88 team members after the race. And yet, those expectations are there because many believe this should be just a starting point for Earnhardt, whose teammates at Hendrick Motorsports have combined for nine titles on NASCAR's premier series. Now, after a regular-season stretch run that saw Earnhardt drop from a high of third in points to almost missing the Chase, there will be questions over how much of an impact this team can have once the championship hunt begins in earnest next week outside Chicago.

Drivers know -- the only thing worse than missing the Chase is getting in and running like junk compared to the other title contenders. Earnhardt has been there, and knows what it feels like. In his media session Friday, Earnhardt surmised that his team had taken a more conservative approach over the past month or so, trying to both secure a Chase spot and prepare for the playoff all at the same time. That's a delicate, and difficult, balancing act. Earnhardt mentioned that he hoped to have more "bullets in the gun" if his team qualified for the Chase. Well, mission accomplished. Now, it's time to load up on ammo.

"We've got to run a different setup than what we ran tonight in the past six weeks, frankly. But we had a pretty good run at it going the first 15 races, and for whatever reason we sort of fell off and forgot some things or over engineered something. But we need to look hard at what we're doing, what we've been doing, sort of a pattern, find something within what we're trying to maybe harness or hampering our ability to drive the cars as well as I want to drive them," Earnhardt said after the race.

"But Steve has told me he's been kind of conservative, that we've been conservative on the motor and a couple other things the last several weeks to make sure we don't have any catastrophic problems like engine failure, and there's some other things on the engineer's side. We'll just see. I don't think that any of that stuff is really going to make us faster, but we'll go in there with a good attitude."

Letarte said his team has essentially been playing it safe since Watkins Glen in mid-August, just trying to ensure they'd qualify for the Chase. "Everybody wants you to turn it around, and [say] man, we should be a championship team and winning races and this and that," the crew chief said. "Goal one was to make the Chase. The unpopular guy to be was me. My goal was to lead the race team, and keep that goal very bright in front of us .... I never sugar-coated it. I think I was pretty honest from the start, but once we had a shot at it from the middle of the summer, we had to keep our heads down and keep working on it, and we did."

They did, on Saturday night with a smoking, taped-together car that looked like it was about ready to sputter out. "I'd call that a championship performance with a car that damaged," Letarte said. No question, it was a performance good enough to get them into the championship picture. The next 10 races will dictate whether they can take the next step.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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