Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88National Guard Heritage / AMP Energy Chevrolet, adjusts his helmet and hans device in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series COKE ZERO 400 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway on June 30, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
(June 29, 2011 – Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images North America)
(PhatzRadio/ SI) – MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to his strongest start in years as the Sprint Cup heads to one of his best tracks, Daytona International Speedway, for Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400. The series is nearing the halfway point of the season and Earnhardt is solidly seventh in the standings after running as high as third until he suffered a punctured radiator last Sunday at Infineon Raceway dropping him four positions in points. But there is no denying that Earnhardt is rejuvenated and revitalized in 2011.
What are the reasons for Earnhardt’s impressive turnaround?
SI.com has put together a roundtable of the men who know Earnhardt best — his current and former crew chiefs — to get those answers: Roundtable includes past crew chiefs Tony “Pops” Eury, Tony Eury Jr., Pete Rondeau, Lance McGrew, and current crew chief Steve Letarte.
SI.com: What is the difference in Dale Earnhardt Jr. this year and in previous seasons?
Lance McGrew — “Confidence. It’s all confidence. I don’t think anybody would ever doubt his talent, he was just not real confident in his talent. Stevie being the talker that he is has done a really good job with the team and with the guys and with the cars and Dale definitely has the walk that he hasn’t had in a couple of years.”
Pete Rondeau — “He’s into it this year. He finally got that back and that is where he was years and years ago. He kind of lost that and now he has that drive and desire and he’s part of a team again. That’s what it takes and I think it’s taken him a few years to realize that, but he is back.”
Tony Eury — “I think he hit the reset button over the winter. He made a lot of changes with people that are around him. His whole team got changed. I think he had a lot of negativity around him and he made sure that was gone when the year started. He wanted to start fresh. He went to Daytona and was prepared to do whatever it took for him to get that car to run.”
Tony Eury Jr. — “The biggest deal is he is having fun. No. 2, he’s got Stevie who believes in him which is a big deal. He has to be surrounded by people who believe in him and that whole organization has jumped behind him to help him out.”
Steve Letarte — “I get that question a lot and it’s hard to say the difference because I don’t have a great reference from last year. When you work in this sport you get so consumed in your race team and we were so consumed with the No. 24 last year trying to get Jeff Gordon to Victory Lane and to win the championship. It was hard for me to get a good reference on where Dale Jr. was. What I see this year is a guy who is very committed, has a tremendous amount of desire and is willing to do whatever we ask him to do to run well. I’m happy to get him some better results than he has had the last couple years because he has put in a tremendous amount of effort and he deserves those results.”
SI.com: What about his maturity? Is he more mature this year?
McGrew — “He has been calmer and more focused. It’s been pleasant. I’ve always gotten along great with Dale. Obviously his success is success for Hendrick Motorsports and that is what it’s all about with us.”
Eury Jr. — “There was a lot of stuff that went down all at once that got him down. Stevie is a really good cheerleader; a really good people person. That is what Dale Jr. needs — somebody that can be a cheerleader for him, give him the positives. Dale Jr. has looked at it, ‘Hey, how many crew chiefs have I gone through? I’ve got to make this deal work.’ Maybe he has realized he is part of the team and he was part of the problem so he has addressed it himself, also, and made the whole thing better.”
Letarte — “I don’t know if I would use the word mature but he is very focused and mentally in a great, prepared state when he gets in the race car. When he runs 500 miles you are going to have good pit stops, bad pit stops, good calls, bad calls, good cars and bad cars. Through all of that he stays very focused at the task at hand and that allows us to focus on the car and not focus on the things that don’t matter. He is a student of the game. He does a very good job of understanding traffic, why the car isn’t driving as well or the sun has come out or the track has changed. It’s easier for the crew chief to communicate to a guy that understands that part of racing.”
SI.com: How much is overplayed about Dale Jr’s perceived lifestyle?
McGrew — “People don’t have a clue. They really don’t. Hanging out with Dale for several years now — the rock star and him partying all the time. Well, he is homebody. He is very introverted. He likes hanging out at the pool with his buddies. He is a homebody.”
Rondeau — “We all like to have a good time on occasion. There is a Dale Jr. at the race track and a Dale Jr. at home. He would just as soon be sitting out on his deck someplace in a nice quiet area. We all like to have a good time and hang out with friends but there is plenty of time for us to sit down and chill out.”
Eury Jr. — “Everybody goes through changes in life and I think the way it started out is the way he is still perceived. Everybody thinks he’s a partier and goes out and hangs out but everybody grows up. He is past that point. He was getting past that point when I was still with him. He is nothing like the way he used to be, for sure. But when we first started, yes, he was a young race car driver with a lot of money with a lot of friends and Budweiser as a sponsor so you knew what kind of party he was going to have.”
Letarte — “His perceived lifestyle and who he is as a person have never matched up to the Dale Jr. that I know. Dale and I spend a lot of time together. He enjoys life as much as I do. I have a wife and two kids and he doesn’t. To have completely different family setups we have a tremendous amount in common. From what I hear and what I read I don’t know if that completely lines up to what I see.”
SI.com: Do you feel that you have to be a psychologist as a crew chief?
McGrew — “You have to be a lot more of a psychologist. You have engineers you can lean on for car setups and aerodynamics and mechanical abilities of your pit crew and your crew guys in general. But when it comes to driver focus and keeping your driver calm and having them show up day-in, day-out, week-in, week-out, it’s more psychology than anything else.”
Rondeau — “Not only with the driver, but balancing the crew out and keeping them happy. You try to surround yourself with the best people you can. Everybody has their own personality and dealing with those personalities and taking their positives and using their positives. Everybody has things they don’t do well and everybody has things that they do well. We try to focus on the things they do well.”
Eury — “Yes but that’s true with all the drivers. When they are in that race car out on the race track they are out there by themselves. There are not many race drivers that don’t get frustrated. We have a few out there that are pretty calm these days. Nine out of 10 drivers get pretty frustrated when they are out there by themselves and somebody has to listen to it and calm them down. That is part of our job, too.”
Eury Jr. — “Absolutely and that is the whole game. With me and him it’s like we were two brothers. He took what I said with a grain of salt and didn’t have a lot of respect for it. When Pops was around he had all the respect in the world for Pops. That is what he was lacking — lacking respect for the people around him. He has that with Stevie, who has brought that out in him.”
Letarte — “Without a doubt the driver’s personality and how it meshes with mine is a very important part of the race team. That is my job; that is my role. My role is to lead the team; to set the tempo of the team and the tempo of the races and that is what I’m doing this year.”
SI.com: Do you consider him aggressive?
McGrew — “I think when he is going through a stretch where he is extremely confident he is more aggressive than when he’s not. If he feels like he is struggling or not being competitive he is worried about being in somebody’s way or not giving them room. When he is on he is on and we are definitely seeing that right now.”
Rondeau — “Not at all. Everybody has a switch that they put on that goes off when they put that helmet on their head. They are all out there to do one thing and that is win a race if they can. If they are not out there to win a race, their next step should be how can I get the best finish of the race that I can get. That’s what comes with the maturity side of it.”
Eury — “I don’t think he is as aggressive as he used to be. When he has a good race car, he can get aggressive. He doesn’t like a lot of controversy for running over other drivers. Seven or eight years ago he was a lot more aggressive than he is now but that happens with all of them. When they get a little age on them they calm down and they start taking a little consideration on the people they are racing against.”
Eury Jr. — “No. That is one of his downfalls. Where his dad was real aggressive and had no friends on the track, Dale Jr. is the opposite. He doesn’t want to cause controversy. If he is really pushed to the last leg he will do something but he tries not to ruffle any feathers. He doesn’t want to cause trouble on the track. He wants respect and that is it.”
Letarte — “Dale has an aggressive side to him. We are doing a better job of setting the pace during the race. That is my job and responsibility. He is doing a great job at running 90 percent and not making mistakes that other people have made in the past. Keeping the car in one piece and not getting in the fence. What that allows is when I ask for more and when we need more he has that aggressive side and can find that 10 percent.”
SI.com: When you were given the job with Dale did you think there was a lot of pressure on both of you?
McGrew — “I think in general there is way too much pressure on Dale, period. He walks around with more on his shoulders than one human should have to deal with. He worries about that. That is part of his focus and that takes away from what he is trying to accomplish. He is always worrying about peripheral things.”
Rondeau — “It wasn’t for me. It was more for him than it was for me. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal myself. To me he is just another driver. Unfortunately he had the name and that is more pressure on him than it was for me.”
Eury — “No. Whenever we first started working together we were Nationwide racing. His dad and I were really close. His dad came to me and said ‘We need to make a race car driver out of this kid. You know how he is. You’ve been around him.’ He was really immature at that time. But we just had fun with it. We went out and did the best job we could, ended up winning two championships and had fun with it. I don’t think the pressure ever came until we got in the Cup car in 2000. Even though the pressure did go up a little bit we still ran good and still had fun at it.”
Letarte — “I think the reason people work at Hendrick Motorsports is we put pressure on ourselves. When Dale and I sat down we both had something to prove. We had tremendous desire to improve our performance over the last couple of years. I know Dale was disappointed that he didn’t run better than he feels he should have in Hendrick equipment. We both have a very, very high amount of desire. It’s like a common thread between us. We know when we go to the race track what our goals are and it definitely helps.”
SI.com: How do you compare him with your current driver?
McGrew — “Mark Martin is probably on the opposite end of the spectrum from Dale Jr. where he is a gentleman racer. He will give you an inch if you need an inch, but he’s not going to give you two. The racing in Cup is different than it ever used to be. Everybody is racing from Lap 1 and that means making some aggressive moves early in the race. Some guys are able to do that and some aren’t.”
Rondeau — “It’s just personality. They are all talented for sure. Some are better than others at different parts of their game and at different levels of their career. Regan Smith is on the upside of his career and he keeps climbing. Every time we go back to the track he gets better each time.”
Eury — “Any of the drivers we have here I can’t say any of them are like him. Every Earnhardt that I’ve had in my car when they sit down in it they had the mindset they could win that race. We didn’t go to the race track if we didn’t think we could win it. When we left home we left with the intentions that we could win it. I think some of the drivers that we have the last couple years — Brad Keselowski was more like Dale Jr. than anybody we’ve had here. He did whatever it took all week long. If he were in town he was in the shop making suggestions. He works hard to make his car as good as he can. I don’t think any of the other drivers we have had here are like that. They want to show up at the race track and expect to have the car ready to race and ready to win the race. Even though you talk to them in the meetings that’s the end of it — you don’t see them again. That is a lot of the problem with the drivers out there right now.”
Eury Jr. — “It’s hard to compare him with Aric Almirola or Danica Patrick or Josh Wise. None of them are at the level of Dale Jr. Aric has a lot to learn, but is a good driver. He has to get some good runs under his belt and get some experience. Danica, it’s so new to her. She has an awesome feel, but is totally different from anyone I’ve ever worked with. Josh is timid like Dale Jr., but his background is he’s been on start-and-park cars his whole career. If you wreck that car you don’t come back the next week and that is his mentality. We are trying to make him more aggressive.”
SI.com: What’s it like to have a disagreement with him that gets out in the public? How do you work around that?
Rondeau — “Everybody is different at the race track than when they are not at the race track. You try to play it so that you talk about it when you are not at the race track — when everybody’s guard is down a little bit when everybody is not intense and exactly what it is focusing on the bad part and not necessarily the good part. When you are away from the track you focus on the good stuff as well as the stuff that isn’t going right. It’s something you have to work on. It isn’t easy. You have good times to talk about stuff and times when it isn’t a good time to talk about that so you push it off until it’s a good time.”
Eury — “What people don’t realize is all crew chiefs and race car drivers have differences. The problem is everything Dale Jr. does is magnified five times. Somebody is always listening; you can’t say anything on the radio that somebody doesn’t hear so everything is magnified five or six times what any other race driver is. That’s been the problem Dale Jr. has had his whole career that everything gets blown out of proportion because of so much attention being put on him and everybody listening.”
Letarte — “We haven’t had too many. The best thing we have always talked about is we don’t worry about when it gets out in public. I try not to read the media. I try not to answer questions like, ‘Dale said this. Can you comment?’ My comment is if I hear Dale say it I will comment. We are private people. We have disagreements. We need to have disagreements. We can’t always agree. He has to be able to voice his opinion about the race team and I need to voice my opinion. We are adults. We are professionals in our business. We are not afraid to close the doors on the trailer during the weekend or close the door in our office and have some good, heated discussions on how to get better. I think that open communication is a big reason why we are getting better.”
SI.com: A lot of people look at his celebrity and overlook what he does well as a driver. Having worked with him what does he do well as a driver?
McGrew — “He has a unique sense and feel for the car that most drivers don’t have. He is very cognizant of the platform of the car, the travel of the car. He feels things in the tires and the chassis that a lot of people don’t feel or don’t worry about. That is a good thing and a bad thing.”
Eury — “Dale Jr. has a hell of a car control. He’s a good race car driver. He gets frustrated real easy. If he goes to the race track and his car rolls off the truck and it runs good he is going to have a good weekend. If your car is way out to lunch and you fight it and fight it and fight it it seems like the weekend gets harder because he gets frustrated so easy. If he has a bad point about him that’s it — that he gets frustrated so easy. I think Steve Letarte has taken some of that away.”
Eury Jr. — “He has an awesome feel and is one of the best guys out there that runs the top lane of the race track. At Daytona there isn’t another person out there that is better than him. He has taught people a lot of things in the garage area just by working with him. He is the best drafter out there.”
Letarte — “Everyone in the sport is talented and Dale is extremely talented. He is a student of the game. People underestimate that he understands racing. He has been at a race track since he was a little kid. You would assume all these guys understand racing but there is a big difference. Jeff Gordon is an unbelievable talent. His strength is he is very, very calm and rarely makes mistakes. Dale’s talent is he understands how a race should flow. He understands how when you practice at Michigan or Sonoma the track should run this way. His strength is his experience and he should give you great direction throughout a weekend.”