Motorsports Insider: Comfortable, confident Earnhardt Jr. relishing final season with crew chief

Posted Wednesday, Jun. 11, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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There can’t be many athletes more self-aware than Dale Earnhardt Jr. He knows with high clarity his strengths and weaknesses, who he is and who he is not.

He’s a patient racer who can manage a race car and work a draft. He is not super-aggressive.

He’s the son of the most popular driver ever, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. He is not Dale Earnhardt Sr., who stoked a reputation for being feared on the track.

With only 21 wins — not a third as many as his father — the younger Earnhardt has never lived up to expectations. But who cares? He doesn’t have to. He is who he is: a man who enjoys racing and friends more than anything else. And if wins are popping up now more than ever, all the better.

“I’m turning 40 this year, and the overrated talk is way behind me,” he said Sunday after winning at Pocono, picking up a second victory in a season for the first time in a decade. “That used to bother me when I was younger. But when you get old, you don’t really care anymore about those kind of things. You just kind of go along and do your job and enjoy what you’re doing, and I’ve got to really maximize what’s left of my career and have as much fun with it as I can, try to enjoy it as much as I can.

“I took it for granted, and don’t take anything for granted anymore when it comes to being at the racetrack and working with my team and how hard it is to get good and get competitive and how hard it is to get the right people in the right place.”

For Earnhardt, the right people means people he enjoys being around. That can include family, mechanics, engineers, the boss and sponsors. His car chief’s son rides go-karts at Earnhardt’s home. His crew chief’s son joined Earnhardt’s video game league. (“We had to clean up the language a little bit, but he’s having fun,” Earnhardt joked).

If Earnhardt, a laid-back nice guy who likes peace and harmony in his life, is comfortable in his surroundings, he believes he can do his best work.

“There’s a real appreciation for each other individually as people,” he said. “We’re real fortunate because there’s not a guy in that group that’s hard to be around. We’re all easy going, and everybody really gets along. We set aside our flaws and really enjoy the relationship and working together, and we’ve done that for a couple years now. But now that we’re having success, it makes it a lot more fun.

“I said it out there in Victory Lane: winning races is great, but it’s nothing unless you enjoy who you’re doing it with. And when you can do something great and it’s with people you enjoy being around, man, it really adds to it. So this is why it’s so special right now.”

Earnhardt has a chance to win a Sprint Cup championship for the first time. Next year, the chemistry will be different. He is losing crew chief Steve Letarte to television.

So the sense of urgency is higher.

“I remember when I talked to him in Homestead after the race, he said, ‘I’ve got to tell you what I’m doing,’ and I broke down,” Earnhardt said. “I mean, it was the hardest thing to have to hear. But at the same time, I thought, well, we’ve got one year together, and as much fun as we have and as good a friends as we are, I feel lucky to have one more year. He told me at this particular point, I was one of the first people to know. That meant a lot to me, and he’s letting me understand that we’ve got one more year together, let’s have some fun, and then I’m going to do this thing, and be happy for me. So I am. I’m thrilled for him, and I’m glad we’re winning. It would be very disappointing and sad if this was his last year and we struggled. But we’ve won two races, and I won my first Pocono race, he won his first Daytona 500.

“It seems a bit storybook, and we’re having a real thrill.”

Earnhardt believes so much in Letarte’s influence on him, he promised himself to nurture it even after Letarte is gone.

“You want to be around people that do that, so I’ll work hard to maintain a great relationship with him because he has such a positive effect on me,” Earnhardt said. “And I still think, even though we aren’t working together next year, he can still have that effect on me and still do things for me that help me on Sunday, even though he’s not there.”

Series Updates

Sprint Cup

One of five: Michigan International Speedway is one of five tracks where Jimmie Johnson has not won. The others are Chicagoland, Homestead-Miami, Kentucky and Watkins Glen.

Larson numbers: Rookie Kyle Larson scored his third top-five last week and moved to 10th in points. He’d be in the Chase if it started today.

Montoya return: Juan Pablo Montoya is back in a Cup car this weekend, running the No. 12 for Team Penske. He’ll also run at Indianapolis next month.

Nationwide

Cup drivers: Entered in the Nationwide race at Michigan are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson.

Hornish in: Last year’s series runner-up, Sam Hornish Jr., is driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing this weekend.

Camping World Truck

Return to St. Louis: The series returns to Gateway Motorsports Park, where the trucks raced from 1998 to 2010. Ron Hornaday Jr. is the only driver who has won in the series at Gateway. Points leader Matt Crafton’s 10 starts at the track are the most of any competitor.

IndyCar

Happy Juan Pablo: Juan Pablo Montoya boasted, “I’m happy, I had a hell of a race,” after he finished third at TMS last week. It was his best finish of the year in his first season in the IndyCar series, and his best finish in an Indy car since being runner-up at Houston in 2000. He was an open-wheel runner-up in 2006 in an F1 race in Monaco.

Every lap: Will Power is the only remaining driver to have completed every lap this season. He had an average running position of 2.1 last week at TMS.

13 Victories for Roush Fenway Racing at Michigan International Speedway, more than any other organization, including four from Greg Biffle.

Quotable

“Brad definitely had the better car. I’ll own up to that, but we won the race.”

— Dale Earnhardt Jr., after debris on the grill of Brad Keselowski’s car on Sunday helped Earnhardt catch the leader.

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7760 Twitter @calexmendez

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