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Absent Earnhardt still presence on No. 88 team

October 19, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Absent Earnhardt still presence on No. 88 team
Junior staying in touch with HMS ride's substitute driver Smith, crew chief Letarte

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. may not physically be at Kansas Speedway this weekend, but NASCAR's most popular driver is clearly still a presence on his race team. Substitute wheelman Regan Smith occasionally chats with Earnhardt by telephone about car setup and race strategy, while crew chief Steve Letarte calls just to talk with his friend. And, of course, there's that familiar signature scrawled above the window opening -- even though someone else sits in the vehicle.

Earnhardt is missing his second consecutive Sprint Cup race while he recovers from the effects of two concussions suffered six weeks apart, and his team remains hopeful for a potential return next weekend at Martinsville. Meanwhile, Smith and the No. 88 crew maintain the business of trying to produce speed, something they showed last Saturday night before engine failure sidelined the vehicle at Charlotte, and again this week when Smith was the fastest driver in two days of testing on the resurfaced Kansas track. It's a temporary arrangement, but one everyone involved is clearly trying to get the most from.

"When it comes to what [being in Earnhardt's 88] last weekend was like, that's not something I talk to him about. ... I don't think that's something we would discuss."

--REGAN SMITH

"This car and team is everything you'd expect out of a Hendrick Motorsports team, and the whole organization's been very good to work with," said Smith, whose fastest lap of 186.143 mph topped two days of testing at the 1.5-mile facility. "It's been an educational 10 days, or however [long] it's been."

Earnhardt, though, is never far from anyone's thoughts. The regular driver of the No. 88 car suffered his first concussion in a crash during an August tire test on this same Kansas track, but did not disclose the condition publicly -- admittedly competing while he waited for symptoms to clear. Two weeks ago, he sustained another concussion in a big crash on the final lap at Talladega, feeling dizzy when his car spun and suffering from headaches afterward that led him to consult a neurologist.

Earlier this week, Earnhardt visited a concussion specialist at a medical center in Pittsburgh that developed the ImPACT test, a popular tool for concussion diagnosis. Before he's cleared to return, he'll have to undergo tests that raise his heart rate without producing concussion symptoms, and then likely take laps on a track by himself. While out of the car, though, Earnhardt still takes an active interest in his race team, staying in contact with both Smith and Letarte. He may not be up to date as far as the specifics of what the crew is trying with the race car, but he's clearly remaining as involved as he can.

"I talk to him all the time," Letarte said. "He's still a huge part of this race team, even though he's not in the race car. He's a great friend of mine. We would talk whether we would talk racing or not. We talk a lot about a lot of things. I try not to bug him, so he can rest when he needs to rest and do what the doctor says, but we talk probably more than the doctor wants. We talk a lot."

So do Earnhardt and Smith, who stepped out of what was to be a ride with James Finch's Phoenix Racing team for an interim role in the No. 88 car.

"We talk a lot about the team," Smith said. "Before the race we talked extensively last week, and just little things here and there that I was going to feel with the cars, and maybe different things over the radio I needed to be aware of. And then, immediately after the race, I talked to him pretty extensively as well. And, at that point, we were already talking about Kansas. Things were done, what happened [had] happened, and we had to focus on getting [to Kansas] and being good here."

Last weekend, Smith showed flashes of what he might be capable of in a top-flight vehicle, driving from a low qualifying position into the top 10 before smoke began to billow from the rear of the car. The engine failure at Charlotte was caused by a combination of factors, Letarte said -- the vehicle running too hot, perhaps some communication growing pains between the substitute driver and crew chief, and debris on the front end that nobody could see.

"We run a little warmer under yellows anyway, and it didn't cool off fast enough, and then we got debris on the grille," Letarte said. "And I think Regan, not being quite aware of all of our gauges, missed it a little bit, and I could have probably done a little better job of asking him about it. It was clear, though -- it was a clear Ziplock bag, so it was hard to see it. It was unfortunate, kind of stacked-up circumstances."

Nothing about that night, though, deterred the No. 88 team's faith in Smith, whom team owner Rick Hendrick thinks enough of that he's considering the driver for a Nationwide ride next season. In Friday's first Cup practice at Kansas, there he was up toward the top of the speed chart once more. Again there's some help from Earnhardt, but this time the direct kind -- in the form of information the regular driver gleaned on the resurfaced race track during the same August tire test where he crashed and suffered the first of his two concussions.

"I think Regan's a remarkable talent, without a doubt, and that's why we're excited to put him in the car," Letarte said. "I think it also says a lot about the equipment we have, and how hard we've worked on it to try and get it better. So, it's good. You know, we obviously tested here with Dale in the car, and he did a good job of giving us a head start. I think we've had a pretty good car here the last couple of days."

For Smith, the future beyond this week is uncertain. Should Earnhardt return next weekend, the Cato, N.Y., native would be in search of another ride. Released from his Furniture Row Racing team after Talladega, he was set to drive for Finch at Charlotte before Letarte called looking for a substitute in the No. 88. Smith and Finch haven't talked about what happens after Kansas, though they hope to do so sometime this weekend -- with the understanding that for Smith, his interim role remains top priority for the moment.

"We'll get together at some point this weekend and try to do that," Smith said. "But definitely that would be something I could hopefully try out before the year is over, and outside of that it's up in the air. I've been so focused on this, as good of an opportunity as it is in the [No. 88] Chevy. It's something to where I wanted to focus 100 percent on what I was doing here, give these guys everything I've got, and go from there."

The job at hand, though, is making the No. 88 go fast. Toward that end, Smith planned to speak with Earnhardt throughout the race weekend, picking up whatever advice he could. There's one subject, though, they don't speak about -- what it was like for Earnhardt last weekend to watch someone else drive his race car.

"When it comes to what last weekend was like, that's not something I talk to him about," Smith said. "I think, as drivers, we know how it is. So, I don't think that's something we would discuss."

The crew chief didn't want to go there, either. "I think you'd have to ask him," Letarte said. "I think he's ready to get back in the race car. We're excited for him to hopefully get back in the race car. Martinsville can't quite come quick enough."