Last season if you asked Dale Earnhardt Jr if he was happy with a top ten finish chances are that he may have responded with a positive answer. In 2014 it seems as if the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver has decided that being in the top ten is not good enough. The displeasure from the sport’s most popular driver after the race in New Hampshire was noticeable.
"It was real disappointing not to have the speed a lot of those other guys had," Earnhardt said following the Camping World RV Sales 301. "The No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) and the Gibbs guys they were all real fast. Hats off to them because they surely got their cars figured out. It's just real frustrating all day long to be playing second fiddle. We worked really hard all day to finish 10th. Pretty disappointing we will go home and work on it and try to do better."
Stepping Things Up
It appears that Dale Jr. has stepped up his own expectations, as well as those of his team, for how he finishes this season. I’m not saying that Earnhardt has been anything but a professional over the years that he’s been in the highest level of racing. He’s been a great driver, ambassador of the sport, avoided scandal and bad press, and works hard to keep his sponsors and fans happy. Heck, he even started using Twitter.
The flip side of the coin is that the famous driver also built a reputation as a driver that burned through crew chiefs, was bad at communicating car information, and that would rather hang out in the hauler than spend too much time at practice or working with his team to prepare for a race. So what happened to the driver that seemed to lose his cool over the radio when he was communicating what was wrong with his car during a bad race day?
The Letarte Factor
It looks as if the decision by his crew chief, Steve Letarte, to leave the team and head towards the broadcast booth at the end of the season has spurred Earnhardt to step up his game. Over the years the driver has earned a reputation for being late to practice, bucking the requests of crew chiefs, not giving good feedback on the car, and other things that a professional race car driver is expected to do.
Now it seems as if the driver that is often referred to as simply “junior” has realized that he’s entering his 40’s and time can’t be wasted. Especially if you want to remain at the top of the sport. Since Letarte and Earnhardt have been paired up the situation has gotten much better. Letarte started requiring the driver to be at the track routinely at certain times before and after each practice and race. The days of wasting time playing video games in the hauler and jumping in the car at the last second were over.
Now Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his Crew Chief Steve Letarte are ready to finish the season like they started it and that’s by winning. There are only a limited number of races left in the regular season before the countdown chase races begin. It does not take much for one to realize, including Earnhardt, that if you have one bad race in the chase then your Championship hopes may be done. That’s why Dale Jr. was so displeased with the team’s performance in New Hampshire.
This year a finish in the top ten may not be good enough. Especially when you’ve raised the bar for yourself and your organization. That seems to be what Dale Earnhardt Jr. has done which should be a scary thing for the other drivers in the garage hoping to nail down a championship this season.