A look at the NASCAR Cup standings shows Carl Edwards leading the way. Kevin Harvick is second. And lo and behold Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sits third, the highest ranked car out of Hendrick Motorsports.
Junior Nation is rejoicing after three years with their man once again having a legitimate shot to win each week. Yet, I am looking for the appropriate tip of the hat to 2011 crew chief Steve Letarte.
Victory Lane is the Promised Land. Granted Earnhardt has not visited there since 2008, but his performance is leading the Hendrick brigade.
This very same 88 bunch guided Jeff Gordon to a ninth-place championship finish in 2010. Letarte wound up leading Juniors’ efforts this year in what was billed as a crew chief swap. In actuality it was an internal driver swap.
Letarte was with Gordon, Alan Gustafson headed Mark Martin’s ride, and Lance McGrew was with Earnhardt Jr.
The drivers, seats, and decals were the pieces that made the move from one team to the other. The crews and actual chassis stayed the same.
Earnhardt Jr. moved to last year’s 24. Gordon moved to last year’s 5. Martin moved to last year’s 88. Replace the seats and the sponsor decals and voila, there is the Hendrick 2011 lineup.
Gordon fans called for Letarte’s resignation when the 24 machine was not visiting victory lane enough for them.
Earnhardt fans called for McGrew’s resignation when the 88 machine was not visiting victory lane at all.
Now the arguing and tension on the radio between Earnhardt and McGrew that Junior Nation eavesdropped on for a season and a half is gone. Replacing it is a spring in Junior’s step, a grin on his face, and a newly formed bond between two men.
But I do not hear the praises for Letarte that he has Earnhardt’s performance markedly improved as much as I heard Gordon fans criticizing him when their man was not winning enough. Nor do I hear Earnhardt fans heaping praise for Letarte improving on-track performance.
Now the 88 bunch is disappointed with a tenth place finish. That is a very good sign. Earnhardt ran out of gas on the last lap while leading the Charlotte 600. He finished seventh. That is also a very good sign. It has been years since Junior was anywhere close to do either.
There is an old expression that if you go to the gas pumps enough; you will eventually go to victory lane. This means the top finishers in each race go to the garage area fuel pumps to fill up the tank as part of the inspection process. If you are being inspected regularly, you are finishing well.
I believe Letarte will keep Earnhardt going to the gas pumps. I also believe in the near future, the car will just be going to the gas pumps covered with confetti.
Maybe then Steve Letarte will get the credit he deserves.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Mondays at 7pm ET/4pm PT. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com.)