Team 88 Looking Great: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Making Push for Chase
For the past two seasons, the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet team were respectable "run-in's" at the track, merely making a presence with TV time without success coming to fruition.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., an 18-time race winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, struggled mightily to get into a comfort zone with his cars, losing focus and often looking lost at most racetracks.
Sure, he's part of Hendrick Motorsports, who've won nine championships in the past 15 years, but even such success didn't translate to productive race days.
After some personnel changes, including crew chief shuffles including Tony Eury Jr. and Lance McGrew, Earnhardt Jr.'s team was restructured during the 2010-'11 off-season.
Not only did Earnhardt get a new another head wrench in Steve Letarte, he was also sent to the former No. 24 shop, working alongside five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team.
With 10 races completed this season, it appears that the Hendrick restructuring is paying off, especially for one of the sport's fledgling racers.
No longer a back marker at the races, Earnhardt and his No. 88 team consistently contend for victories, churning up strong performances every week.
Compiling an average finish of 11.3 in the first 10 events of 2011, he's improved significantly compared to 2009 and '10, when he completed those season with average finishing positions of 23.2 and 18.6 respectively.
While there's plenty of racing between now and Homestead-Miami in November, Earnhardt appears to be on pace for a solid year with a Chase seed, as he currently sits fourth in the points standings.
For the meantime, the pride of Kannapolis, NC knows there's still room for improvement with the team, including himself.
"We got some work to do still, and you know, we are faster, we are more competitive than last year," Earnhardt said per Kansas City Star writer Randy Covitz's article. "But we still...got a ways to go."
So what's the difference between Earnhardt from the past two years and the one who's looking like a title contender in 2011?
"I got better at my communication when I first started working with Hendrick because (the way) they do things is different than what I've done in the past at DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.)," Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt's communication changes including relaying feedback to his Hendrick teammates, often emailing Jimmie Johnson regarding his car's characteristics.
"I had three emails from him explaining different scenarios about what he thought went on with the car and how to make our stuff better," Johnson said.
Perhaps more than anything else, the biggest change in Earnhardt this year is that he's having fun behind the wheel.
Then again, when you're contending for wins and finishing amongst the top-10 finishers week in and out, that's a lot better than struggling in the 20's with a marquee name and team.
Crew chief Steve Letarte also meshes well with Earnhardt's casual demeanor during the heat of the battle. Of course, he's a fierce competitor who wants nothing more than to win races.
However, Letarte's calm attitude is an equalizer and perhaps even a motivator when Earnhardt's car goes awry with its handling.
Sometimes, communication and chemistry can go a long ways more than an air pressure change, a round of wedge, or even a track bar adjustment.
As the Cup circuit hits up the concrete arena known as Dover International Speedway, Earnhardt and his No. 88 team have one thing in mind for Sunday's FedEx 400 benefitting Autism Speaks: winning.
After all, if the 36-year-old finds himself in the confines of Victory Lane this weekend, it'll be about the most raucous party and a joyous ending to an 0-102 steak going back to a June 2008 victory at Michigan.
If anyone is capable of conquering "The Monster Mile," it's fall 2001 race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who appears to be back, stronger and better than he's ever been in his 12th season of Cup racing.