Dale Earnhardt Jr. has hit the ground running in 2011 and many are giving his talented crew chief, Steve Latarte, the lion's share of the credit. Many have felt Dale Jr. was more than capable of success but he would just have to find a crew chief he can mesh with.
Latarte appears to be that special combination for Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has extensive knowledge from his years with Jeff Gordon and he has learned to deal with the intricate relationship that comes with being the crew chief for a driver that is bigger than the sport at times.
Jeff Gordon was a handful on occasions for Latarte. He was easily frustrated and every time his teammate Jimmie Johnson would win, Gordon was in an agitated state. Latarte's baptism by fire with Gordon was a good preparation for his new job as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief.
Dale Jr. is easily frustrated and is difficult to communicate with at times when things are not going his way. Over Earnhardt's first few years with Hendrick Motorsports, not much has gone right. He entered the team with his own crew chief, Tony Eury Jr. and the two never managed to adapt to the Hendrick Motorsports equipment.
Dale and Tony had a different relationship and when their bickering became too much for Rick Hendrick to take, Lance McGrew was installed as the new crew chief on the No. 88 team. McGrew lasted until November of 2010 when the three way swap of Hendrick crew chiefs was completed.
Earnhardt and Latarte appeared to have chemistry immediately but their relationship was tested in the first weeks of the season. Dale Jr. qualified for the pole for the Daytona 500 and he did not want to practice because he did not want to damage his car.
Latarte talked him into practicing and when Earnhardt smashed the car into the inside wall after a practice crash he was furious. He and Latarte overcame that rough start and now they have become very close as the season has progressed.
The Martinsville race was a tribute to Latarte's expertise on setting a car up for the odd shaped Martinsville Speedway half mile. Dale Jr. ran one of his best races ever on the flat short track and he gave a majority of the credit to his crew chief.
Now the NASCAR Sprint Cup series will head to Talladega and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Latarte will attempt to capture the magic they possessed in Daytona. The Hendrick Motorsports engines have the horses for the big Talladega track and they have a dynamic aero package that will get them up front early in the race.
If Dale Earnhardt Jr. can stay up front and out of trouble for 188 laps in Talladega it is his race to lose this Sunday. He and Latarte will set the tone for the last two restrictor plate races if they can dominate this weekend.
Look no further than Las Vegas if you want to know how Dale Earnhardt Jr. will do this weekend. The Las Vegas Hilton Superbook has installed him as the second favorite at 10-1 just behind 9-1 favorite Kyle Busch.