Earnhardt has a new crew chief, a new car chief and spots to fill on his pit crew, but he remains optimistic entering Daytona.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is hoping last year’s success carries over to 2015.
The challenge, however, for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver will be accomplishing that task with nearly an entirely new No. 88 team at Hendrick Motorsports.
Gone to the NBC Sports booth is crew chief Steve Letarte, who spent the first of a four-year stint with Earnhardt just drawing him out of his shell – and the motorcoach lot – while developing a relationship and rebuilding the driver’s confidence. In the two years prior to Letarte, Earnhardt had not only failed to win a race, he didn’t even finish in the top 20 in the point standings.
And car chief Jason Burdett, who Earnhardt also enjoys a solid friendship with, is now at JR Motorsports as crew chief for the No. 7 team and driver Regan Smith. He also lost half of his pit to the No. 19 team and Carl Edwards at Joe Gibbs Racing.
But Earnhardt takes comfort in knowing his new crew chief Greg Ives – both from his engineering days at Hendrick Motorsports where he was a protégé of Chad Knaus and as the pit boss who led Chase Elliott to the Nationwide Series title in the rookie’s first season at JRM. Ives worked with Smith one year earlier and the pair finished third in the point standings. Ives will be joined on the No. 88 by his former JRM car chief Travis Mack.
I always enjoy the challenges of working with people and building those relationships and building that trust. I enjoy that challenge as much as I enjoy racing on the racetrack.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“We got a lot of new guys like Greg and Travis,” Earnhardt said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “So it’s going to be fun getting to know these guys, building these relationships, building these friendships and working together week in and week out. I always enjoy the challenges of working with people and building those relationships and building that trust. I enjoy that challenge as much as I enjoy racing on the racetrack.
“I’m looking forward to working with Greg. We had a great year last year on the race track and I’m looking forward to building on that. We’ve continuously gotten better over the last several years. We seem to keep stepping our game up year after year. I’m looking forward to see if we won four races last year, what can we do this year? What can we accomplish this season?”
On his game
No doubt, 2014 was a banner year for Earnhardt since arriving at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. His eighth-place finish in the Sprint Cup standings wasn't indicative of his performance throughout the first 26 races. Earnhardt displayed remarkable consistency early on in the year and was considered a favorite among Chase contenders.
Earnhardt's four wins were a season-high in the No. 88 Chevy and his best result since in a decade. With a victory in the season opener, Earnhardt’s second Daytona 500 win and his third Cup win overall on the 2.5-mile track, set the tone for 2014.
“We’d love to win it again,” Earnhardt said. It’s a lot of fun. Obviously, winning the race, being able to go to Victory Lane – you spend the whole next week touring the country – doing the media tour for NASCAR, talking about the win and celebrating it throughout the week leading up to the next race in Atlanta. But yeah, we’re ready.
“I talked to my crew chief Greg Ives and we’re going over the details with our speedway cars – all the particulars. He’s a detail guy and he doesn’t leave any stone unturned. We’re going to take some good, fast cars down there. I expect to be very competitive.”e
A winning style
Although Letarte graduated from the school of hard knocks, working his way up from sweeping floors at Hendrick Motorsports to sitting on the pit box, and Ives holds a degree in engineering from Michigan Technological University, Earnhardt finds the leadership styles of the crew chief to be quite similar.
Greg has a lot of those same qualities where he’s easy to talk to, he has a great sense of humor and a good personality, but at the same time he’s not going to put up with anyone lying down on the job or taking a shortcut.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“He does have a lot of qualities in his personality that Steve had that are good qualities for a guy when it comes to managing people,” Earnhardt said. “The crew chief job has changed over the last 10 to 20 years and what Steve’s strengths were, was managing individuals and putting a group together and putting the right people in the right places to succeed and he built a great team that literally ran itself. He wasn’t working on the springs and shocks, per se, he got him a great engineer and developed that engineer to where that guy brought the speed to the car.
"But Steve focused on every role and put the right person in that role. He had a great disposition. He was really easy to talk to but he could be stern and discipline people. He kept everybody in check and we rarely had any failures or problems with maintenance.
“I think that Greg has a lot of those same qualities where he’s easy to talk to, he has a great sense of humor and a good personality but at the same time he’s not going to put up with anyone lying down on the job or taking a shortcut. He’s going to expect everyone to be diligent and do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
“The other thing I like, that I hope is going to come true, is not only am I keeping my lead engineer Kevin Meendering from last year, who like I said is I think is responsible for the speed in the car, Greg has an engineering background. So I have two of the best engineers in the garage working on my cars and I think that will develop a lot of speed in our cars week in and week out.”
A new stage
Earnhardt is also excited about the $400-million facelift to Daytona International Speedway. He believes the state-of-the-art Daytona Rising project will attract even more fans to the birthplace of speed.
“They are re-imaging Daytona,” Earnhardt said. “Building all new grandstands for all the fans there, trying to change or improve the experience. It’s already a pretty awesome ticket to have for the Daytona 500, they’re just trying to make it even better. They have a lot of great ideas. We always put on a great show. The build-up and anticipation throughout the weeks puts on an awesome show on Sunday because the tension is high and everybody is there to win.
“I’m looking forward to getting that going. We’ve got one month to charge our batteries, go have some fun and blow off some steam but once February rolls around we’re going to get busy and get focused to go to the racetrack.”