Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Nothing but the Seat Shuffle Last Bullet at Hendrick

Hank EptonCorrespondent INovember 26, 2010

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet, stands in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2010 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

For Dale Earnhardt Jr., this may be the last bullet in the gun at Hendrick Motorsports. For Steve Letarte, it probably feels like the weight of the collective NASCAR world is on his shoulders.

Tuesday’s news of a crew chief swap at Hendrick Motorsports was a bit of a misnomer. According to Rick Hendrick, it’s more of a driver swap.

“The cars, the people will all be the same. The same in the other two shops; the only things we changed were the seat, the driver, the sponsor and the number.”

Nothing but the seat: that’s what will be the same for Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he heads to Daytona for Speedweeks in 2011.

For members of Junior Nation, they’re getting the change they wanted. Everything is changing for Junior except for the seat he’s in, the paint on the car and the Nomex with his name on it.

Next year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. becomes the proud wheelman for a team that finished ninth in the final standings.

The cars they prepared are the cars he’ll drive. They won’t have a No. 24 on the door; they’ll carry his No. 88.

His new crew chief Steve Letarte has kept Jeff Gordon in the top ten in the points standings race after race and year after year, and his job just got a lot more complicated.

For the last five years, he’s been entrusted with calling races for the driver that arguably made Hendrick Motorsports into the juggernaut it is today.

Jeff Gordon is Hendrick Motorsports. He has held the banner for nearly two decades. That’s a lofty responsibility and at times has drawn a lot of heat for Letarte.

Now, Letarte will try to revive the career of the driver that for many is something much larger. They’ll tell you Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR.

That heat that Letarte used to feel just turned into a searing cauldron.

For those who speculated that Jr.’s problems were the cars or the folks preparing them or the guy on the pit box, we’re about to find out.

Dale Jr. will enter 2011 with his third crew chief since his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports began back in 2008.

First, his cousin Tony Eury Jr. was on the box, and he needed a change.

Then, it was Lance McGrew on the box, and he needed a change.

Now, it’s Steve Letarte, who has been the custodian of the career of the legendary Jeff Gordon.

Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson aren’t splitting up anytime soon, so this is as good as it gets at Hendrick Motorsports for driver 88.

The cars have won races, the team has won races, the guy on the box has won races and we’re going to find out if the guy behind the wheel can still win races.

Hendrick Motorsports is one of the best companies in NASCAR, and Earnhardt Jr.’s move there was celebrated when it happened. Now he’s with a team that everyone knows can compete.

To put it bluntly, there are no more excuses. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to win at Hendrick Motorsports, it’s going to happen in 2011.

There’s no way to improve his environment from here. He’s in the shop with the A-Team.

Five-time champion crew chief Chad Knaus has said on numerous occasions that everyone in that shop is part of one unit, and now Junior is part of the unit that has won the last five titles.

The situation at Hendrick Motorsports can’t be better for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

For everyone who is certain that Dale Jr. couldn’t win with the old group and just needed a change to flip the switch, someone should have warned you.

Be careful what you wish for, you just may get it.

Many of the rationales explaining his performance over the past few years just went out the window.

If you thought it was the cars, they're all different.

If you thought it was the crew chief, there's a new face on the pit box.

If you thought the owner had neglected him, that owner just put him in prime position.

If Junior doesn’t start performing now, there’s nobody to blame.

That is, unless you’re ready to blame the seat.


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