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Confidence game: Earnhardt's outlook bolstered by 2011

December 21, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return to the Cup Series awards ceremony was but one symbol of his rebirth in 2011. (Getty Images)

Earnhardt's outlook for the future bolstered by the improvements of past year

For Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most disappointing moment of the 2011 season came before the season had really even started. He had won the pole for the Daytona 500, a big boost for a driver who was trying to rebuild his career with a team and crew chief that had worked with Jeff Gordon the year before. But four days before the main event, he got tangled up with Martin Truex Jr. in a practice session, and his No. 88 car rocketed into the wall. He would have to go to a backup vehicle, and start from the rear.

It was only part of a trying Speedweeks for NASCAR's most popular driver, who during the 500 suffered a cut tire with one lap remaining in regulation, and then was caught up in a crash. Those things, though, were outside of his control. But crashing in practice? Under the gaze of a crew chief, Steve Letarte, and a team that had been moved over from the No. 24 program during a Hendrick Motorsports personnel swap the previous offseason? These were guys who were used to contending for Chase berths and race wins, and Earnhardt wanted to show he was worthy of them, and instead his car wound up wadded into the SAFER barrier.

"The last couple of years, I wasn't getting the happiness out of it. I was wondering how long I could go along in racing unhappy, and keep doing it. But this year it turned all around, 180 degrees, and I'm enjoying it again."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

"It's all about first impressions, and that's the first impression I had given my new crew as a driver," Earnhardt said recently. "I was upset, because I wanted to impress those guys, and I wanted to make them believe in me as a driver. I wasn't doing a good job at that moment, and it was very disappointing at the time."

From the fan base, so eager for that breakthrough, so hopeful after changes that appeared capable of snapping Earnhardt out of a two-year funk, you could almost hear the collective sigh. And indeed, Earnhardt did go winless in 2011, showing a goose egg in the victory column for the third consecutive year. But over the course of this past season, Earnhardt recaptured other, less tangible things that tend to get eclipsed by a winless streak that's now stretched to 129 races. By finishing seventh in final points, by nearly winning at Charlotte, by pushing teammate Jimmie Johnson to victory at Talladega, by running well at Martinsville and Homestead and other places, by returning to competitive relevance after two years in the wilderness, he rediscovered confidence and contentment -- factors that, as much as a crew chief change or faster race cars, could lead to the real breakthrough down the road.

Everybody focuses on the wins, or the lack thereof. But in truth, finishing seventh was a major step forward for a driver who had placed 21st and 25th in points the previous two years. Letarte, famous for his cheerleading style over the radio, was brought over to reinforce his driver's belief in himself, and by all indications did his job very well. Too many times, Earnhardt has arrived at Champions Week after the season just to pick up his Most Popular Driver trophy and go home. This year, he got to stay and give a speech during the awards ceremony itself. All these things add up, and collectively they help improve the frame of mind for a driver who carries a burden of expectation like nobody else in the sport.

"Deep within myself, I'm real happy about how I improved. I'm happy to be competing again, and I feel like I'm almost where I want to be. Outwardly, I want to express a lack of satisfaction, and we need to get better, and we've got more to do, and we've got to run faster. Those are the truths. But to myself personally, I am happy. I feel like I'm in a better place," Earnhardt said.

"Personally and professionally, I feel like I'm in a better place than I was. And I'm having fun, and I really enjoy driving. I got involved in racing to be happy, because it made me happy. And then the last couple of years, I wasn't getting the happiness out of it. I was wondering how long I could go along in racing unhappy, and keep doing it. But this year it turned all around, 180 degrees, and I'm enjoying it again. I didn't want the season to come to an end. This is the way I wanted it to be. I'd like to run better, and there are some truths there as far as performance goes that we need to face. But as a whole, and especially me personally, I feel much more excited about my future."

Given how long the NASCAR season is, and given how easy it is for a driver and a team to fall into a hole they can't crawl out of, that kind of outlook is crucial. In fairness, Earnhardt has been beaten up a lot over the past few years, and there have been times over that stretch when it's been easy to see the toll it's taken on the guy. Earnhardt is a very self-aware person, cognizant of his standing in the sport and the expectations placed upon him, and when things aren't going well you sometimes get the sense that he feels he's letting people down. And let's be honest -- over the previous two seasons, there were more than a few people in the grandstands who thought Earnhardt was done, that Rick Hendrick had thrown everything at the No. 88 team save Chad Knaus, and things still were trending in the wrong direction. How do you possibly reverse something like that, a program with so much negative momentum that it's in danger of being sucked into the dirt?

By first building back up the driver, as it turns out. Letarte has always taken a lot of heat as a crew chief, from both Gordon and now Earnhardt fans who think he doesn't win enough, or sometimes makes head-scratching pit calls. But as a motivator and confidence-builder, he's done absolute wonders with Earnhardt, once a solid championship contender who in back-to-back seasons with Dale Earnhardt Inc. finished third and fifth in final points. Those days seem like a hundred years ago -- to everyone but the driver himself, who still uses those 2003 and '04 campaigns as a something of a competitive barometer, and believes he has the potential to get back to that level.

"I feel like I can compete like that again," Earnhardt said. "I feel like I still have the same tenacity and stuff to be able to put forth the effort every week and do what counts. I feel like I can do that."

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Of course, the winless streak looms over all of it, like a black cloud that won't move out of the way. As Earnhardt proved this year, he can make some serious strides without winning a race. And as he showed in 2008 -- when he won for the first time in two years, but sank to a 12th-place points finish that preceded the frustrations of the next two seasons -- winning doesn't necessarily mean progress. Like everything else, Earnhardt deals with the skid in a practical manner.

"It doesn't really get old. It's part of the deal," he said. "We didn't win. It's obvious. It's an obvious stat. It's hard to ignore. It bugs me because I know what winning feels like, and I want to have that feeling again, I want to enjoy something like that again in Victory Lane, I want to go through all that experience. It's fun. It's the reason you show up. It's the reason why you keep going, to try to think you might be able to do that again."

Does the pressure to end it, though, increase with each passing year? "The pressure is there," he said, "but it's like the difference between 100 degrees and 110 degrees. Hot is hot."

This past season, though, there were enough signs to make anyone confident that the streak is nearing its end. Charlotte, Martinsville, Kansas, Talladega -- Earnhardt could have won all four of them in 2011, had a few things unfolded differently. The opportunities were there, opportunities that for the most part had been absent over the previous two years, those bleak campaigns during which fans wondered if Earnhardt would ultimately end up making circles for his own team. You don't hear much of that anymore. A level of confidence has returned to the No. 88 team, and it permeates everyone from its fans to the driver, who can't wait to get back into the race car and pick up where he left off. In more ways than one, that practice crash at Daytona seems a very long time ago.

"We just want to get back to the race track as soon as we can, and get back to work," Earnhardt said. "I was enjoying driving there at the end of the year. I thought we were making some gains, learning some stuff .... [I'm] just looking forward to getting to the race track, trying to build on that."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.