Like Lennon and McCartney or Martin and Lewis, NASCAR has had its share of successful pairings; specifically the driver and crew chief. There was Richard Petty and Dale Inman, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Evernham, Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli and perhaps no pairing has had more impact than Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. There’s little doubt no crew chief had a more positive impact on a driver than did the recently retired Steve Letarte with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Looking back, many would say a younger Earnhardt’s career was impacted in a negative way when he no longer had Tony “Pops” Eury Sr. atop his pit box. A veritable cast of thousands tried their hand putting NASCAR’s most popular driver in a position to win, and many were beginning write Dale off as a relevant contender. Enter Letarte. The former Jeff Gordon crew chief injected a fresh dose of positive energy for a driver that desperately needed it. Realizing it was a long climb from the bottom, the two embarked a steady ascent upward, culminating with a 2014 campaign that renewed the driver’s confidence, re-energized his sizable fan base, and re-established the third generation racer from one of NASCAR’s greatest families as a bona fide force.
Hendrick Motorsports tabbed Greg Ives as Letarte’s successor late last season, and with a changing of pit bosses, came a realization on Earnhardt’s part that he needed to play a more proactive role with the 88 team. “I thought about it in the off-season, what I wanted to do was try to take it upon myself to be a better motivator. Instead of sitting there and waiting on — I used to just sit there and let Steve motivate me, motivate the team, and I thought, you know, I can’t always depend or count on that, and maybe I need to step up and just have a better attitude…” Different personalities bring different qualities to the table. “He’s (Ives) not Steve. They don’t have the same personality, not that one is better than the other. Me and Steve became such great friends, so it was like working with your best friend every day. Me and Greg are working on that relationship. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He’s a great family man, and he’s — we all swap advice, and he’s real honest and I trust what he — knowing the things he’s done to get to where he is, I trust his judgment.”
“There’s been moments away from the spotlight where he’s put his arm around me and said, man, we’re going to fix this or this is going to get better, trust me. He’s actually — he sees when I’m concerned or when I’ve got a little — when there’s a question in my mind. We’ve got that kind of chemistry, and it’ll get better and better the more we get to know each other.” You hear a driver with more emotional investment in the team “The cheerleader that Steve was was really, really good, but it also let me off the hook a lot. And now working with Greg, I’ve got to be more accountable for carrying my own emotions and taking care of myself.” Sounds like a little bit of maturity from a man who at times in his career was a kind of Peter Pan figure.
Making the work of Earnhardt and Ives easier is the quality what they have to work with. “Our cars are really good. Our motors are amazing. I’ll be honest, I mean, I’ve been a lot more competitive over the last couple years. We’ve got a lot of great people working at that organization, but my resurgence or whatever you want to call it is mainly due to how good the cars are, how fast the cars are, how well prepared we are, how much work we do.” In fact, he feels a bit sorry for anyone else who doesn’t have the Hendrick horsepower “It doesn’t look like them other cars are much fun to drive.”
This is a far cry from the Dale Earnhardt Jr. of 2009 and 2010, who frequently complained of his cars and argued with crew chiefs Tony Eury Jr. and Lance Mc Grew like Harriet and Bernice. While Sunday’s race at Bristol marks a return to short track racing, the result at Texas shows strength for the 88 team on the intermediates- where they must be strong to be a championship contender.
It can be a bumpy transition- a veteran driver with a new crew chief- but to the relief of Earnhardt fans, things are going the right way. Junior is not a kid anymore, and taking initiative to ensure a good transition, and Ives showing no ill effects of trying to meet the lofty expectations of Junior Nation.