NASCAR: Has Earnhardt Jr. finally turned the corner?

NASCAR

For the third straight week Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished in the top two, this of course coming after his ground-breaking second Daytona 500 victory.

A week ago at Phoenix it was clear before the race even began that no one had anything for Kevin Harvick, but in the closing laps on Sunday if he had just a few more ounces of fuel in the tank Earnhardt Jr. would’ve cruised to his second victory in three races. Upon arriving at Hendrick it took Earnhardt four years just to earn two wins, so to almost tie that in only three races would’ve been an accomplishment of major proportions.

Earnhardt Jr. has admitted himself that he feels the pressure of living in his departed father’s shadow. Upon his death, most of the Intimidators fans migrated directly to his son and placed the unrealistic expectation upon him to pick up where his father had left off.

Since becoming a Cup driver in 2000, Earnhardt Jr. has recorded only 20 victories over 14 full seasons and three races into 2014. That includes five seasons where he was winless, and four more where he only had one victory.

He had a breakout season in 2004 where he made a serious run at the inaugural Chase for the Cup, before having those hopes derailed in a late race crash at Atlanta late in the playoff. He finished 2004 with six victories, including his first Daytona 500 victory, along with 16 top five’s and 21 top 10’s. The only season he was better in any statistic was a season ago when he posted 22 top 10’s, but only 10 top five’s and no victories.

Even after switching over to the super team of Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt Jr. struggled after his first season. In his following two seasons he finished a career low 25th and 21st in the final point standings, missing the chase for the second and third times of his career.

After going through his cousin as crew chief, Tony Eury Jr who followed him over from DEI, and Lance McGrew who essentially became an interim crew chief upon Eury Jr.’s dismissal, Rick Hendrick made another crew chief change giving Earnhardt Jr. Steve Letarte, former crew chief of four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon after Robbie Loomis was dismissed.

Letarte, who sat atop Gordon’s pit box and helped him to 10 wins, and a career best 30 top 10’s in 2007 has rerouted the fortunes of the 88 team. He immediately righted the ship for Earnhardt Jr. by helping him to a seventh place finish in the final point standings in his first year at the helm of the 88 team, just one season removed from a 21st place finish.

Since then he has helped Earnhardt Jr. to two victories, 27 top five’s and 57 top 10’s in just over three full seasons. That beats Earnhardt Jr.’s first three seasons at HMS by one victory, 12 top five’s, and 28 top 10’s.

While Letarte’s time with the 88 team has been a huge success, and continues to be, he announced that this will be his last season crew chiefing, as he will join the broadcast booth for NBC’s coverage of NASCAR in 2015. This means next year we will all found out just how much of an impact he may have made on resurrecting the temporal sinking ship that was Earnhardt Jr.’s career, and if the Intimidator’s son has indeed turned the corner.