action:article | category:SPORTS | adString:SPORTS | zoneID:40

Home » Sports

August 04. 2014 7:41PM

Faith in Earnhardt finally paying off

Aug 3, 2014; Long Pond, PA, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) climbs out of his car on victory lane as he celebrates winning the 400 at Pocono Raceway. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

When team owner Rick Hendrick introduced Dale Earnhardt Jr. in June 2007 as the latest addition to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver roster at Hendrick Motorsports, he said all the right things.

Hendrick asserted he wanted to help Earnhardt achieve what the legions of fans who make up Earnhardt Nation crave most—Earnhardt in Victory Lane on a regular basis and ultimately holding the Sprint Cup trophy.

“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am and how much pressure I feel,” Hendrick said at the time. “He’s such an icon. There’s pressure because I want to deliver, and there’s going to be a lot of people watching.”

Indeed. People watched. And for the better part of six years, they waited.

Driving the No. 88 Chevrolet, Earnhardt won the Sprint Unlimited non-points exhibition race in his maiden voyage for Hendrick in February 2008. That victory only served to heighten expectations.

But Earnhardt’s only other win that year came in a fuel-mileage race at Michigan. In contrast, the driver Earnhardt replaced, a highly motivated Kyle Busch, won eight of the first 22 races in 2008 for new boss Joe Gibbs.

If 2008 was a lean year for Earnhardt, 2009 and 2010 were unmitigated disasters. The No. 88 team produced five top fives in those two winless seasons combined and finished 25th and 21st in the final standings, respectively.

A crew chief change in June 2009, from Earnhardt’s cousin Tony Eury Jr. to Lance McGrew, didn’t help.

The disappointment of 2010 brought another change, as Hendrick made wholesale changes to his driver/crew chief lineup for 2011, pairing Earnhardt with Steve Letarte. Though Earnhardt remained winless in 2011, his fortunes improved.

Earnhardt qualified for the Chase and finished seventh in the final standings, collecting a dozen top 10s along the way.

Nevertheless, the idea that Earnhardt would win regularly and contend for a championship still seemed more wishful thinking than realistic expectation.

After winning Sunday’s 400 at Pocono Raceway, Earnhardt said he wouldn’t have been surprised if Hendrick had replaced him during the lean years.

“We went through struggles, and he had every right in the world to replace me with another driver, and nobody would have said a thing about it,” Earnhardt said. “Because we weren’t running good enough, and it would have made perfect sense to everybody if he would have went that route.”

Well, not exactly. Hendrick doubtless knew that the quickest way to become NASCAR’s most unpopular owner would be to fire the sport’s perennial most popular driver. In fact, in 2011, Earnhardt signed an extension that will keep him in the No. 88 Chevy through 2017.

With Letarte on the pit box, Earnhardt slowly began to accomplish what he and Hendrick envisioned together in 2007. In 2012, Earnhardt and Letarte won their first race together, at Michigan. And though they didn’t get to the winner’s circle in 2013, Earnhardt’s performance made a quantum leap.

After an engine failure in the first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway effectively knocking Earnhardt out of the title picture, he rattled off eight top 10s in the next nine races, finishing the season 2-4-3 at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

That was merely a prelude to 2014, Earnhardt’s first multiple-win season in a decade. With a victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 and a sweep of the Pocono races, Earnhardt is locked and loaded for the Chase.

The peak performance is there, and so is the consistency, making Earnhardt one of the strong favorites to win the championship this year.

Make no mistake. Earnhardt has always been a favorite. This year, however, he’s more than just a sentimental one — much more.

 NH Sports Angle more
Links to news and happenings around the world of sports with a Granite State connection, updated daily.

Man found unconscious at Winchester Speedpark Saturday

Too young to drive, but old enough for NHMS

Police examine speed, possible horseplay in golf cart fatality

Mass. man, 27, dies in golf cart accident at The Links at Outlook

Hanover's Sarah Groff competes in the women's triathlon final during the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Hanover Olympian in spotlight at Las Vegas Super Sprint

FHL makes it official, team planned for Berlin will play in North Adams, Mass. instead

Can NH soccer star Charlie Davies make a comeback?

Inside NIKEs secret sports lab; born in Exeter, now located in Oregon.

Concord Monitor decries gender pay gap in professional tennis

FHL franchise slated for Berlin may go to North Adams, Mass. instead

Eagles' Kelly says he learned his offense by studying defense while at UNH

Former Concord area youth baseball coach sentenced to 30 more years in prison

Maine boxer Brandon Berry making Fight to Educate history

Hudson family, classmates working to keep Alvirne soccer standout Raul Stedile in U.S.

Israel unrest moves meet for NH swim star

Race date for Oxford 250 moved from July to Aug. 30 next year

NH's Groff a highlight for U.S. at ITU World Triathlon Series Grand Final

Maine fighters Lamour, Berry on New Hampshire boxing card

Q&A with Matt Bonner as he weighs free agency

Keene State mum on suspension of veteran track coach

Morgan Andrews speaks: Notre Dame star undeterred by U.S. U-20 World Cup snub

Mo'ne Davis, and why no one should laugh at the idea of a woman in Major League Baseball

Curt Schilling says smokeless tobacco caused oral cancer


 New Hampshire Events Calendar


Upcoming Events

 New Hampshire Business Directory