The scene unfolded moments before the first qualifying race for the Daytona 500, some 72 hours before the green flag waved on the 2011 NASCAR season. After being introduced to the crowd and ferried around the track in the back of a convertible, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hopped out of the car at the beginning of pit road and started walking, slowly, toward his No. 88 Chevy, which was parked on the other end of pit road because Junior was starting from the pole.
This was when something odd began to happen, something I've never seen in over a decade on the NASCAR beat: Rival drivers, rival crewmen, rival owners, even NASCAR officials all began slapping Earnhardt on the back, giving him high-fives, fist-bumps, even -- in a few cases -- wrapping their arms around him in a quick embrace. It was as if the entire sport was rooting for him, supporting him, hoping that 2011 would be a breakout year for NASCAR's most popular driver, showing the driver who finished 21st in points the year before a little group love.
Many of the heavies in NASCAR will tell you that the quickest way for NASCAR to regain its momentum -- TV ratings and attendance figures have slipped since the sport's popularity boom in the mid-2000s -- is for Earnhardt to consistently run near the front of the pack. He's been voted NASCAR's most popular driver eight straight years, even though he's qualified for the Chase just once in the last four seasons. "I have to start running better this year, there are no other options," Earnhardt told me at Daytona. "I've got to get this thing turned around."
Eight races into the season, in what must be considered the biggest surprise of 2011, Earnhardt has done just that. In the offseason his team owner, Rick Hendrick, shook up Hendrick Motorsports, moving three of his four drivers to new teams: Earnhardt switched to Jeff Gordon's team; Gordon went to Mark Martin's team; and Martin moved to Earnhardt's old crew. So far, it appears that Hendrick has the golden touch, because all of his drives are in the top-15 points and, most significantly, the shake up has revitalized Earnhardt's career.
Teamed with crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt has been one of the most consistent drivers on the Cup circuit. He's finished 12th or better in every race except the season-opening Daytona 500 (he was wrecked that afternoon) and he's currently third in the standings, which is as high as he's been in the points at this juncture of the season since 2008. He still hasn't won a race in his last 101 starts --the longest drought in his career -- but he'll be among the favorites to win next Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) International Speedway, one of his favorite tracks on the schedule where he has three career victories.
So what's been the big difference between the Earnhardt of 2010 and the Earnhardt of 2011? The answer is obvious: Letarte. The 31-year-old crew chief, who began working at Hendrick at age 16 sweeping floors, possesses an outgoing, engaging personality. He's been the perfect counterpart for Earnhardt, one of the quietest, most introspective drivers in the sport. "Steve just has a knack for knowing what I like in my race cars," Earnhardt says. "We've really hit it off ... When I worked with Lance [McGrew] last year, my confidence was terrible. But my chemistry with Steve is really, really good ... I was a little nervous moving to the new team. It was kind of like going to a new school and making new friends. I'm shy, so it was a little hard. We're off to a pretty good start, but we can still get better."
The biggest thing that Letarte has done for Earnhardt has been to rebuild his confidence. Last year Earnhardt questioned virtually every move he made on the track and every change to the car he ordered up during pit stops. A driver without confidence, which I considered to be the biggest X-factor in racing, is a wreck waiting to happen. A driver with confidence, though, can execute moves on the track seemingly cribbed from a racing video game, making his car behave as is if it's an extension of his body.
Earnhardt had confidence when he won six races in 2004 and finished fifth in the final standings. But since then, it's been a struggle for Earnhardt to maintain faith in his racing ability. Enter Letarte. An optimist for the ages, Letarte is as talkative as anyone in the garage, and he's constantly giving pep talks and shouting encouragement in Earnhardt's ear during races. "There has been magic between Junior and Steve," says Hendrick. "Steve is exactly what Dale needed. Junior's confidence is back and he's having fun again. Steve simply won't let him get down. He's in his head all the time."
Together, Earnhardt and Letarte have quickly emerged in 2011 as unlikely title contenders. Can they stay in the lead pack? That storyline will be the single most compelling in NASCAR of the spring and summer.