LONG POND, Pa. — In his 16th year as a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. can finally admit that he’s enjoying himself.
For that reason, his emotions were clearly visible in Victory Lane as he celebrated for a second time in two months, sweeping both races at the tricky, three-cornered race track in the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania.
“I’m having the greatest year of my life,” he told a national television audience after winning the GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday.
It may have been the most important win of his career. His third win this season puts him in the company of drivers whose names are regularly associated with winning and championships.
And it may be the start of the momentum that will carry his team all the way through the Chase.
The road to this moment, however, had been long, winding and, at times, bumpy.
For years, Junior struggled to make a name for himself. It's no easy task when you have the same name as one of the sport’s most iconic figures.
His early years in NASCAR were moderately successful, as he drove for the organization that his father built, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. While there, he worked with family and friends, perhaps not the best atmosphere to learn the kind of teamwork and respect that turns a good driver into a championship-winning one.
Without his successful father alongside him, he was left with having to figure out how to win races at the highest level in NASCAR, where the competition and driver attitudes can often border on sociopathic. It was not where he wanted to be, and a frustrated Earnhardt Jr. was often seen apologizing to his fans for his lack of success.
Then there was the celebrity spotlight. Dealing with the adoration and love of a legion of fans—both his father’s and his own—was no easy task. Imagine trying to accomplish the unattainable?
His fans expected him to win races and contend for championships.
He tried to, yet those championship years didn’t come. In his first decade as a Sprint Cup driver, he amassed 18 wins, not a bad record by any means.
He even qualified for the sport’s Chase in several of those seasons. But when it was time to separate the contenders from the pretenders, Junior’s team lost the handle, disappointing his fans and adding to his frustration.
Was he not good enough? Was he to be cursed with having a name that he could and would not live up to?
Things began to unravel in 2005, and after having been saddled with a well-intentioned yet unknown crew chief named Pete Rondeau (who?), he finished 19th in points and scored only one win. The following year, he managed just one win again, and despite making the Chase field, he again fell out of contention early. He went winless again in 2007, finishing 16th in driver points.
It was obvious that a change had to be made. A big change.
Earnhardt Jr.’s move to Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season was the boldest of bold moves. It was a “put up or shut up” moment for Earnhardt Jr. The sport’s most popular driver would move to what was arguably the sport's then-most dominant team. He would have the best of everything. If he had the talent, it would show. And if he didn’t have the talent, well, that would show, too.
Those first few years at Hendrick Motorsports were confusing ones, as Junior brought with him baggage from his years at DEI. It eventually became clear why he had struggled for years before coming to Hendrick. After a difficult split with family, there was a year with crew chief Lance McGrew. What was team owner Hendrick thinking with that decision?
Finally, as it looked as though things couldn’t get much worse before the start of the 2010 season, Hendrick came to the realization that it was time to get serious, and if the young man he believed could do great things were to achieve those great things, there would need to be even more change.
It was time for one more bold move. Junior would get the help he needed in four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, a move that, in retrospect, was clearly the missing piece of the puzzle.
He would have not only the best equipment, but also arguably one of the best minds in the shop. How could he fail now? Or were those ugly whispers about him not having what it takes true?
The first season, Letarte righted the sinking ship and pointed it in the right direction. The following season, things began to jell. Junior scored a long-overdue win at Michigan. Last season was winless, but it set the stage for what was to come.
As a team, they spent four years losing together, and they learned a lot from losses. And their frustration was a sign of success. Frustrated when you're not the best is how you have to be, according to Letarte.
It’s easy to see why these two get along. Letarte’s mind is sharp and decisive; Junior’s is open and adventurous. They work well together—so well that the two have become close friends.
Letarte became the calming influence in his life that had been missing, especially in his racing career. He helped Earnhardt Jr. turn off the outside noise. Letarte made the difference between how you win and how you lose so clear to Junior that he changed his entire psyche about racing.
Letarte is the steady and confident voice in Junior’s ear on race day, a reassuring figure Earnhardt needs to make those necessary leaps to get to the next level of performance required to win races and maybe even championships.
On Sunday, before climbing out of his No. 88 Chevrolet for post-race celebrations, Junior sat smiling in his car in Victory Lane. He had to capture the moment with a phone call to his team owner.
“I just thanked him for how he has changed my life and how he has supported me and this whole team and how lucky we are to have the power that we have, the cars that we have,” said Earnhardt Jr.
“I wanted to thank him and make sure he understood how much I appreciated him even in this time where you kind of forget to thank everybody, or you are just happy you won. I wanted him to know how much it meant to me that I got the chance to drive this car, and we got a win today.”
The success of this team makes sense. When you pair a crew chief whose decision-making and leadership lay the kind of foundation for championship-caliber performances with a driver who has reached that stage of enlightenment in both his life and career where confidence comes naturally, it's easy to see this team holding the Sprint Cup in Homestead.
Ed Hinton of ESPN.com agrees:
And it is Stevie who is restoring Earnhardt. Stevie, to whom nothing is the end of the world. Stevie, who has gotten Earnhardt to relax, made him see himself as just a regular guy rather than a storm-tossed icon who never asked to be an icon.
The odd part is that Earnhardt considers himself lucky.
“I can’t believe I fell into this group, and I am just the lucky guy that gets to drive for them,” Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. “They would be winning races regardless of who is driving the car, and I am just lucky to be a part of it.”
It’s questionable whether just anyone could be winning races in the No. 88 car. But Earnhardt does know something he couldn’t understand when he was younger—that winning means you’re part of something that is bigger than the individual parts.
Does success at Pocono twice ensure a championship? Far from it. What Sunday's performance does do for Earnhardt is give him that proverbial "attaboy!" he's not able to get from a father. It's a reassurance that he does indeed have what it takes to win races and work as part of a team and enjoy all the thrills that winning can bring to you.
Letarte, as he is accustomed to doing, issues a sobering reminder that one win does not make a season and that there are many more mountains to climb.
"If you think that this win gives you an advantage at Chicago, you're sadly mistaken,” said Letarte. “You have to leave every race thinking you weren't good enough, even if you were. If you have that mindset, you might have an opportunity to continue to improve and try to stay ahead.
"But the garage is full of great competitors, and the Chase is going to be different than we have ever seen. No one knows how it's going to be, we all have our predictions, we'll see who is right."
If there is a championship for this team at the end of the season, it will be Junior at center stage getting most of the accolades. And it will be Letarte, standing to the side with that all-knowing, guru-like smile on his face, who put him there.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Bob Margolis has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
Follow Bob on Twitter: @BobMargolis