Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat under a tent in the infield at Talladega Superspeedway last Friday afternoon, watching the rain come down. A practice session for Sunday's Cup race had been washed out, but that did nothing to discourage NASCAR's most popular driver, who is thriving thanks to an extreme makeover by his team owner last autumn. "For the first time in a long time, I'm having fun again," said Earnhardt, 36, who hadn't won in 100 Cup starts. "My confidence was shot last year. I've still got a ways to go, but man, my whole world is enjoyable again."
This is an article from the April 25, 2011 issue
Forty-eight hours later there was Earnhardt, a 13-year Cup veteran, smiling boyishly on pit road and clutching the checkered flag. He hadn't won the Aaron's 499 on Sunday, but he had pushed his teammate Jimmie Johnson to victory, as the reigning Cup champ beat Clint Bowyer by .002 of a second—about a foot—tying the closest margin of victory since the advent of electronic scoring in 1993. Eight cars blanketed the line and took the checkers together, four in front running essentially bumper to bumper with four in back. Before motoring to Victory Lane, Johnson handed the flag to Earnhardt, the fourth-place finisher, whose team now works under the same roof as Johnson's number 48 crew at Hendrick Motorsports in Concord, N.C.
"Making big changes is always scary," said team owner Rick Hendrick on Sunday morning as he eyed his four Chevys on pit road—the same ones that had qualified first (Jeff Gordon), second (Johnson), third (Mark Martin) and fourth (Earnhardt), only the third time in Cup history a team had qualified in the top four spots. "So far, it's gone better than I could have hoped."
In November three of Hendrick's four drivers moved to new teams within his organization: Earnhardt, who had finished 21st in the point standings last year, was assigned Gordon's former crew and crew chief, Steve Letarte; Gordon switched to Martin's team; and Martin inherited Earnhardt's crew. The only team Hendrick didn't shake up was Johnson's, which has won five straight Cups. "We had to do something," Hendrick says. "We may have won the championship last year, but if you looked closely, you could see that other teams had caught us. And I felt Dale needed a new situation."
For the last few seasons Earnhardt tended to fade late in races, in part because he fell silent on the radio whenever he was frustrated by his car's handling—a ruinous habit for a crew, which needs the driver's input to diagnose the problem. This has not been an issue with Letarte, 31, a born talker and perhaps the most optimistic man in motor sports. He is constantly in Earnhardt's ear. "I'm a cheerleader, and I let Dale know I'm with him," Letarte says. "We're clicking." Indeed they are: Earnhardt has finished 12th or better in seven of eight races in 2011 and is now third in the Cup standings—his highest ranking at this point in the season since '08.
As Earnhardt left the track on Sunday evening, he put an arm around his crew chief, happily recounting the race. Earnhardt's winless streak may have grown, but so did something else: his confidence.
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Ever since he became the youngest Daytona 500 winner, in February, Trevor Bayne, 20, has been learning a hard truth: Winning NASCAR's biggest race doesn't guarantee happiness. Not only was he briefly hospitalized two weeks ago with an insect bite to his elbow, but he has also struggled on the track. Since Daytona, Bayne has finished no higher than 17th. On Sunday he crashed into the wall and finished 40th... . Last week Greg Biffle (16th in the standings) signed a three-year extension with Roush Fenway Racing. Next up for owner Jack Roush: re-signing Carl Edwards, the current points leader, whose contract expires at season's end. Expect Roush and Edwards, who are extremely close, to reach a long-term deal by midsummer.