Earnhardt's trust in team results in top-five finish
August 17, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. felt his tire coming apart. His No. 88 crew didn't see it.
Thus began a long, productive conversation over the radio in which crew chief Steve Letarte detailed why he thought Junior should stay out on the track before ultimately leaving the decision solely to the driver, who said he was coming in to pit.
"Just go with what you feel," Letarte concluded, "and know that we'll support you 100 percent with whatever decision you make."
Earnhardt changed his mind and stayed out -- his tire held up and showed no external damage on his next pit stop. The result of that change-of-mind led to the team's continued off-cycle pit strategy, and a late-race caution on Lap 169 of 200 allowed Junior to stay out. It shot the driver up to sixth-place when the field restarted, and Earnhardt drove up to a fifth-place finish.
It was Earnhardt's second top-five in the past three races and it came at a track where the No. 88 struggled in Friday qualifying, not advancing out of the first round and starting Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 from the 25th position.
"There's only one guy that knows what the car really feels like, and that's the guy behind the wheel," Letarte said after the race. "We talked about the facts. The facts are that we were in a pit window and the risk would be that we go a lap down. The second thing I wanted him to know that if he feels he has a tire coming apart, then he needs to pit.
"We're not at Martinsville. When you're running 200-plus (mph) into the corner, you need to leave that up to him, and I would do that with any driver. And Dale used his best judgment, and fortunately we didn't have a big problem."
It's another instance of the symbiotic relationship between this driver and crew chief, the result of which has Earnhardt tied for the series lead with three wins and second in the driver standings, three points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.
It's why Junior was able to compartmentalize what his own ears heard -- his right front tire snapping in Turns 1 and 2 -- and rely on the words and observations of his crew chief.
"Yeah, hearing that (over the radio), it gives me a lot of confidence," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I just trust what he says. I really don't worry about it. He's seeing the race from a different perspective. I don't really question his choices, and what he says I go with.
"I feel like he's a good strategist and he makes good calls, so he keeps us moving forward. We had some trouble today, and he gave us a strategy to get a top-five."
Some of that trouble included an on-track incident with Denny Hamlin in which Junior drove the No. 11 up the track. Hamlin noted he was a "little disappointed" but that the drivers had a post-race discussion on pit road and moved on -- Hamlin's frustrations of not being able to keep up with the Hendrick engines caused his anger, he said.
"Yeah, I ran him up the track a little bit early in the race," Junior said, adding that he was trying to pass while avoiding a three-wide situation. "It was way, way early, and he didn't like it too much. I mean, I've been run up the track too, and I didn't like it either."
The more tangible trouble came after the No. 88 and No. 42 Chevrolet of Kyle Larson collided on pit road on Lap 22, with Larson exiting his stall as Earnhardt was coming in.
Both cars incurred damage, with Junior needing a trip back down pit road. He restarted 39th on Lap 25, having already been in a problematic pair of episodes with the race not even a quarter of the way finished.
"Everybody was on pit road," Larson said. "I was leaving my box and looked in my mirror and saw the 27 (of Paul Menard) and somebody else coming to my outside, so I was leaving them room. Then the 88 came out, and we just kind of met right there. It happened really quick."
The damage moved the steering wheel around, Earnhardt said, and also dented the quarter-panels. That resulted in his car being loose into the corners the rest of the day.
So how did the No. 88 team overcome that one? Much like his driver did when discussing strategy, Letarte said the other party deserved the credit.
"We really just acted like there was no damage the rest of the race," Letarte said. "We worked on our car, we called our pit strategy and Dale drove it like it was a perfectly fine car, and I think that confidence led us to a top-five finish."