Sports

April 1, 2014

Crew chief pushes Dale Earnhardt Jr. to top of standings

The partnership ends next year, when Steve Letarte leaves the No. 88 team for television.

Two weeks after losing the points lead, Dale Earnhardt Jr. reclaimed it.

That’s what a little discipline will do for you.

Driving with perhaps the most maturity and poise he has in his career, pushed along by a demanding yet encouraging crew chief, Earnhardt has a win and is at the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings as the series comes to Fort Worth this week for the Duck Commander 500.

“I’ll be missing this next year. There’s nobody like him,” Earnhardt said.

Crew chief Steve Letarte is leaving the No. 88 team to join television next year, ending what will wind up a four-year partnership that has brought Earnhardt out of a long slump.

Earnhardt had three wins in six years before Letarte came on board. He has won only twice with Letarte, a modest improvement, but he set a career-high for top-10s last year and nearly matched it the year before.

This year, he has four podium finishes in six races — a win at Daytona, runners-up at Phoenix and Las Vegas and last week’s third-place finish, which moved him back to the top of the points standings.

It was the performance at Martinsville, a short track that requires focus and rhythm from the driver, that reminded Earnhardt of Letarte’s value to him.

Earnhardt could hear Letarte constantly reminding him over the radio about staying disciplined and continuing to hit his marks, even though Earnhardt is one of the best Martinsville drivers.

“When he was saying, ‘I’m probably getting on your nerves,’ I’m thinking, ‘Man, bring it on,’ ” Earnhardt said.

For a long stretch in the middle of his career, Earnhardt lacked a spark or confidence or something.

Hendrick Motorsports paired him with Letarte, a former crew chief of Jeff Gordon, in 2011 and patiently gave them time.

Eventually, Letarte’s influence settled in on Earnhardt, bursting with confidence since his Daytona 500 win six weeks ago.

“He does a great job of keeping my mind focused on the tasks, and there’s several different things you’re doing in the car during a run and you can forget — you can easily get yourself carried away and race a guy and forget taking care of your car,” Earnhardt said. “It’s easy to get swept up in the competition of things, and he’s good at sort of cheerleading you along the way and running the show.”

Because of discipline, Earnhardt reminded himself not to ask more of his car than it had last week, when he was trying to catch Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

“I couldn’t afford to run any harder if I wanted to be competitive on the end of these runs,” he said. “I was losing my car pretty fast there in the last five laps, so I didn’t have anything else to get there.”

Next season, it will change. Earnhardt will have a new crew chief. He knows what that means.

“I don’t expect the next guy to come in there and mimic him or be like him,” he said. “We’ll work that out.”

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