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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Letarte Helping Dale Jr., From Start To Finish

With many people questioning the move by Steve Letarte, Crew Chief for the #88 Chevy driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr., late in Sunday's race at Pocono Raceway to take fuel rather than gamble for a win, I just thought I would underscore some reasons Letarte is making the right decisions for the #88 driver.  Although mistakes are made on a weekly basis by every, yes, every team, the overall direction of Letarte's team is in the right direction.  In fact, some issues Earnhardt has had for several years have been fairly well solved.

For one, Junior has had an issue with qualifying for quite some time.  I don't think it is totally because he has not had good setups, and I know it is not for lack of power.   When he began driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt Jr. had a average starting position of 10.3, the best season average of his career.  However, after the one win that year (at Michigan, his last win, 4 years ago this week) finishes began to taper off, finishing outside the lead lap in five of the ten Chase races. 

After Earnhardt's confidence in himself and the #88 team began to go away, so did his qualifying attempts.  Over the next three years his starting average was 22.2, 19.0, and last year 19.6, which were out of character for Dale Jr., whose career average is 16.4.  This year, Dale Jr. has put up good qualifying numbers almost every week.  In fact, he has only two starts outside the top 20.  Compare that to last year when, in the first 14 races, he had only three starts inside the top 20. 

I thoroughly believe that the primary reason for the change in qualifying success has been confidence.  Confidence that his grip will hold when entering a corner at 160 mph, confidence that he has a crew chief that has listened to his feedback and adjusted accordingly, and confidence that if he gives his 100%, so will his team.

That confidence is the main reason I think Letarte chose to pit and take fuel in a late race caution on Sunday.  Dale Jr. himself pointed out to Letarte that he would not be forgiven if the #88 car ran out of fuel.  In later interviews, Earnhardt Jr. alluded to the fact that running out of gas would have ruined his confidence, the team's focus, and the upward direction of the #88 team as a whole.   I agree.



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