blank 03/07/11 11:03AM Earnhardt, NASCAR

Earnhardt enjoying progress made with Letarte


Eighth-place finish at Las Vegas gives driver two top-10s to start season

By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
March 07, 2011 12:44 PM, EST

LAS VEGAS -- You can hear it in his voice. You can see it in his face, and in the results on the scoring tower. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having fun again.

"I'm happy. It's a fun team, a great group of guys," he said. "I'm proud to be a part of it, and hope I can keep working well and keep doing well."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Autostock)

I'm happy. It's a fun team, a great group of guys. I'm proud to be a part of it, and hope I can keep working well and keep doing well.

-- DALE EARNHARDT JR.

He had good reason to feel that way Sunday, when Earnhardt turned in his third consecutive solid effort to start the season, an eight-place result at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Earnhardt ran as high as fourth late in the event, but got stuck behind several cars that took two tires on their final pit stops, and then had his No. 88 get tight in the final laps of the race. Even so, the performance follows a 10th-place run at Phoenix, and a Daytona 500 where he was among the leaders late before a cut tire ruined his day.

Working with new crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt has now recorded back-to-back top-10s for the first time since New Hampshire and Daytona in the middle of last season, and he stands 10th in Sprint Cup points -- the highest he's been since he was eighth after Talladega last spring. Perhaps most importantly, Earnhardt continues to show signs that he's capable of ending a winless streak that now stands at 96 events.

And he's clearly enjoying the process.

"We're just doing what we're supposed to do, I reckon. We didn't have too bad a car in practice and I just didn't nail it in qualifying. ... But I guess the best thing that we did all day long was the adjustments. I kept telling Stevie what I thought I needed and what the car felt like it was doing wrong, and he was hitting on it every time. We were kind of working together on some ideas and we hit on one idea that was really good and it really woke the car up," Earnhardt said.

"We decided to take four [tires] at the end, and I'll back Stevie's call there. It might have cost us a spot in hindsight, but we just need to run good and get good finishes under our belt and keep their confidence and keep my confidence up. Midway through the race was the first time in a long time I actually was feeling like I could beat them guys, you know? That I was around. It gave me a lot of confidence [Sunday]; we just need to keep doing that."

Car owner Rick Hendrick paired Earnhardt and Letarte in an offseason personnel shuffle because he thought Letarte's penchant for keeping his driver upbeat and confident could help a driver who's struggled since joining NASCAR's top organization. Sunday, Letarte was at his best. "Come on, buddy. You're absolutely doing great," he told Earnhardt as the driver tried to gain positions in the final laps.

That relationship extends off the track, and goes in both directions. Earnhardt and Letarte -- who won 10 races with Jeff Gordon before being moved to the No. 88 team in November -- met Saturday night with team engineers to discuss what changes to make to the car for the race.

"It's fun in this hauler, man," Earnhardt said. "When you're running good, everything is easier to do. But I really enjoy brainstorming with Steve, and I think having worked with him, I've become better at helping him just in a short period of time. But it's fun to brainstorm with and work with him, and I just want to do good."

Earnhardt can sense he's making progress, which for him is paramount. He's on his third crew chief since joining Hendrick Motorsports prior to the 2008 season. If it doesn't work with Letarte, he's not sure where he might turn next.

"Failure at this point is completely unacceptable, and I've got to put it all out on the line and do everything I can to make this work," he said. "If it don't work with [Letarte], I got nowhere else to go. I got no other options, really other than just to race myself into oblivion with my own team and Tony [Eury] Jr. and them guys. But I want this to work. I want to be in a [Cup car] the rest of my career as long as I can, and I want to be successful, and so I'm just trying to work hard, man. We're getting better. It feels like it's working."

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