To be numbered among the best, the critics said they had a lot to prove. The driver, the progeny of a seven-time champion, was derided as one born on third base, but cheered as though he had hit a triple. He’s been called a choker, gun shy, lazy and all manner of things in an effort to explain why he had not achieved his father’s proficiency.
The crew chief once took the reins from the master pit boss for a four-time champion. In a play off of his name, he was called “Pop Tart.” Memes graced the Internet with the breakfast treat burned and ran over. During his time as crew chief for Jeff Gordon, he was made a scapegoat and held often responsible that the legendary driver couldn’t capture that elusive fifth title.
Though dismissed as less than elite, the driver- Dale Earnhardt Jr.- and the crew chief- Steve Letarte- have become a magic pairing, an auto racing Rocky and Mick. After his first career victory at Pocono, and his second of 2014, the driver has been quick to credit his team for his success. When Letarte was paired with Earnhardt’s career was in dire straits. He had achieved one victory since coming over to the Hendrick Motorsports super team, and he hadn’t enjoyed any real success since 2004.
It’s been a gradual turnaround; real change takes time. Driver and crew chief must learn how to effectively communicate with each other to get on the same page. Trust must be earned; not easy for a driver who had been through a slew of pit bosses since the days of “Pops” Eury.
Though that deliberate process would mean testing the patience of loyal, longing fans and would also mean more taunts from the haters, the perseverance has been rewarded. Not only do you have two men who have become boon companions, you have a team cutting loose, having fun, all while pushing with gusto for wins as the crew chief makes one last run before hanging up the headset.
Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte be numbered among the best? In 2014, the numbers say they are right there with Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. Really, though the wins have just come lately, week after week the ’88’ team is competitive, even if there are races where the finishes don’t always reflect it. In a season where fortunes can turn quickly, at this moment at least, Earnhardt and Letarte are on a roll. The critics’ words suddenly ring hollow, and the hopes of Junior Nation are rising. The two have proven worthy of their hire and worthy of the confidence Rick Hendrick has placed in them. They are winners; that has already been proven.