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Year in Review: Earnhardt back in Chase in first season with Letarte

December 16, 2011, Jill Erwin, NASCAR.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was back in the Chase and his 14.5 average finish was his best since 2008. (Autostock)

Year in Review: Earnhardt returned to Chase in first season with Letarte

It might be a good thing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make sure he has Steve Letarte's cell number on his frequent caller plan, because based on how they conversed in 2011 -- and how that resulted in a solid Chase effort -- they're about to spend a whole lot more time talking in 2012.

For the first time since 2006, Earnhardt's average finish was at least one position better than his average start. He averaged a 19.6 starting position, but a 14.5 finish. And that, he said, was the key to his optimism with Letarte.

"Sitting here again, seeing all the pictures and the accolades that come along with guys who have made it to Victory Lane, my face isn't in those highlights. I want to be in there next year."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

2011 statistics

WinsFirst 26Final 10
Top-fives31
Top-10s93
Poles10
DNFs20
Laps Led502
Avg. Start21.414.9
Avg. Finish14.215.2

Perhaps too much.

"There's been so many times throughout the season where literally for the next 48 hours after the race, all I wanted to do was text him and call him and keep bugging him about how great a job he did, and how awesome the car was and how happy I was with the car getting better throughout the race," Earnhardt said. "It's so frustrating when you're racing and you can't improve. And you work and work, and you don't get better.

"There were races where we were getting so much better and being more competitive. I just wore him out, bugging the heck out of him about it. He looks at it like, 'Hey, that's what I'm supposed to do. That's my job.' And it wasn't a big deal. He brushes it off. But it just really pleased me a lot to be able to have a guy that I could count on, on top of the box, making changes on the car that were working. It was really enjoyable."

The early part of 2011 showed a consistently strong Earnhardt the Sprint Cup Series hadn't seen in a while. After a 24th-place finish at Daytona -- despite winning the pole -- Earnhardt rolled off seven consecutive finishes of 12th or better. It was a welcome change for both him and Junior Nation.

Earnhardt gives credit to the growing bond among him, his new crew and Letarte.

"The team and myself sort of evolved into the union that we made over the offseason, as we all got together and changed a lot of things around," Earnhardt said.

Coming off of three consecutive finishes outside the top 10, Earnhardt cruised into Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600. He was among the 10 fastest cars in only one of the three practices and qualified 25th.

Letarte worked his magic, and a fuel-mileage gamble almost paid off.

Earnhardt finished up just a quarter-lap short of his first checkered flag in 104 races and ended up seventh, but afterward knew he'd taken the only shot he had.

"I just do whatever my dang crew chief says, but I believe that was the right call," Earnhardt said. "Because if we'd have pitted, I don't know where we would have finished. We'd have finished wherever David Ragan finished [third]. ... But think about it, man. Winning the 600, that would be awesome. I had to try. Had to try."

Earnhardt followed that with a runner-up finish at Kansas and a sixth-place run at Pocono. But that's where things went slightly off track, and Earnhardt wasn't back in the top 10 until the series returned to Pocono seven races later. He was ninth there, and had only three more top-10s in the final 15 races of the season.

He finished seventh in back-to-back outings at Martinsville and Texas in the Chase, and 11th in the finale at Homestead-Miami. Those runs at the end of the year gave him something to build on for 2012 despite leading only two laps in the entirety of the Chase.

"We ended on a relatively decent note," Earnhardt said. "We wanted to finish well at Homestead because I haven't run well there in a long time, and we went into that race really trying to capitalize on the opportunity there -- to finish the season on a positive note."

Another positive for Earnhardt? He made his return to the Cup Series award ceremony -- it was his best points finish since 2006 -- this time in Las Vegas. The last time he got to speak on stage, the event was still being held in New York.

"It's good to be back at the big dinner again," he said with a laugh as an introduction to his speech.

But what was missing from the night? For one, more highlights of him, especially in Victory Lane. For another, the chance to pull the belts tight and turn left for a few hours.

"Sitting here again, seeing all the pictures and the accolades that come along with guys who have made it to Victory Lane, my face isn't in those highlights. I want to be in there next year," Earnhardt said.

Dale Earnhardt Jr: Notes-n-Nuggets

• Thirty-seven years old from Kannapolis, N.C.
• Finished seventh in the standings in his 12th full-time season.
• Fifth time he finished in the top 10 in the championship standings.
• Started the 2011 Chase in the 10th position.
• His best 2011 finish: second at Martinsville and Kansas.
• Is the only Chase driver to not win a race in 2011.
• His winless streak is now at 129 races (Michigan 6/08).
• Season numbers: zero wins, one pole, four top-fives, 12 top-10s, 52 laps led, two DNFs, finished on the lead lap 29 times, average finish of 14.5, 15.1 during the Chase.
• The 2004 Daytona 500 winner; 1998, 1999 Nationwide Series champion.
• Extended his contract with Hendrick Motorsports through 2017.

"Looking at the pictures and listening to the highlights and people talk, I'm ready to go back to the race track now. After the last several years, I've really looked forward to the offseason and enjoy the break we have. But this year, I'm really looking forward to getting back to the race track whenever we can, because I just enjoy working with Steve. I enjoy exploring and finding new things with him through the mechanics of the car. I'm ready to go, and I think that says a lot about our possibilities next year and our potential to have a good season."

Watch all of Earnhardt's highlights from 2011 and flip through his year in photos below:

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