Prior to his pairing with crew chief Steve Letarte last season, the life of Dale Earnhardt Jr., at least at the track on race weekends, was quite simple.
The philosophy, in a nutshell, was to show up and drive. That is all.
Letarte changed that when he moved over to sit upon the pit box of the No. 88 Chevrolet Earnhardt drives for Hendrick Motorsports. Having helped guide veteran Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon to five consecutive Chase berths as Gordon's crew chief, Letarte had a certain way of going about his business that was unlike anything Earnhardt had previously experienced.
"I never really had anybody ask that much of me as far as a crew chief goes," Earnhardt said recently at the HMS shop. "They were more like, 'Just be there with your helmet when it's time to drive, and be ready to drive.' But he's asked me to do other things separate from the driving job itself. He's got expectations of what he wants me to do as a driver that help him be a better crew chief."
What has been required of Earnhardt is more of a full-time commitment to the team. He fills out post-race forms just like team engineers do, describing what he believed was going on with the car during certain stages of a race. He sits in on more team meetings -- sometimes morning, afternoon and night in between on-track practices.
The public perception often has been that Letarte is a good fit for Earnhardt because the upbeat Letarte is such an open cheerleader in interviews and on the team radio during races. But it turns out his most important attribute is as taskmaster. Upon becoming Earnhardt's crew chief, he told his driver bluntly that he expected Earnhardt to arrive at the job long before his first practice run and be prepared to stay late on days at the track.
"He wanted me there early," Earnhardt said. "I was grumbling about it at first, but he just said, 'That's the way it is, man.' ... As soon as I got to the truck in the morning, I never left until the day was over with. I never did that my entire career until [last] year. I would go back to my bus in between practices. I was never there early, or did any of those things in the 10 years before that."
Letarte chuckled when told of Earnhardt's self-admission about grumbling.
"I guess I didn't even care about his grumbling, because I didn't even have to sell [the idea to him]. I just told him, 'This is the schedule. This is how we're going to go about our business.' He never really grumbled to me," Letarte said. "He was there; he was there on time and ready to work. I appreciate that about him. He's the ultimate professional -- and from everything I've seen, I would expect him to continue being the ultimate professional.
"He's a huge part of the team. He's the only guy in the car, and we need him to be a part of it. He's never said anything but 'Sure, I'll be there.' And he's always said it with a smile on his face."
The hard work paid dividends as Earnhardt made the Chase last year for the first time since 2008 -- the first year he drove for Hendrick -- and finished seventh in the final point standings, his highest finish since fifth in 2006 when he was still driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Team owner Rick Hendrick, who orchestrated the move to have Letarte become Earnhardt's crew chief, insisted that the Letarte-Earnhardt duo has barely scratched the surface of their true dual potential.
"Nothing surprised me, but I never realized what a cheerleader Stevie could be -- or how much Junior could take tough love. Stevie knew just when to deliver that, and when to put his arm around him," Hendrick said. "I think a lot of the other guys were scared of him, and so they would hold it in and then get mad and say something, and then Junior would get mad and we didn't go anywhere.
"But now Stevie knows exactly when he can pull that trigger, or just riding to the races with him and just how to work on him in more relaxed settings like that. I give Stevie a tremendous amount of credit. They haven't shown their true potential yet, but I think you'll see it this year. The communication, the confidence level ... I just wish we had put them together earlier on. I had no way of knowing it would be as good as it is."
And what exactly does Hendrick see as their "true potential?" As good as they were together last year, they never won a race. Earnhardt still hasn't won since June of 2008 at Michigan, carrying a 129-race winless streak into this season that has to wear on the driver like a set of bad tires that he wishes could have been changed hundreds of pit stops ago.
"I just feel like they'll win races and they'll be back in the Chase. I think they'll be better than they were last year," Hendrick said. "They made a huge step last year from where they were. We hit on some things at the end of the year that they really liked. It's amazing how close these cars can be, but then how different some of the setups need to be from driver to driver. Sometimes it takes a while to get all of that to fall into place.
"I just feel like the relationship between those two ... Stevie is not going to lay down; he's not going to accept Junior not being [a true pro]. And Junior needs that confidence that his crew chief is doing what he needs to do, and not slacking off because Junior's maybe in a bad mood or he doesn't want to do what the crew chief wants him to do that day. Stevie, that just rolls right off his shoulders. He doesn't care about that. The mutual respect is unbelievable there."
Letarte said one of the keys to his developing such a trusting relationship with Earnhardt so quickly is that he refused to buy into anyone else's perception of the situation before he stepped in to form his own opinions. Even though he had worked at Hendrick since 1995, when he was only 16 years old, and obviously knew a great deal about Earnhardt, Letarte's first opinion was that you never really know a man until you get close to him.
"I personally never asked anyone their opinion of Dale Jr., nor did I listen to anything about him that was ever offered to me," Letarte said. "I went to Dale Jr. and introduced myself as if we had never met, and we started the process with a completely blank slate. So I had no expectations of what he would be like, and I think he's been great. ... I had no other expectations other than my expectations of his commitment and what I expected him to do as a race car driver. But I had no other expectations based on past history.
"In my opinion, when you line up on Sunday with 43 cars on the grid, what you did yesterday or last week or even how many championships you've won, it doesn't matter. Forty-three guys have a chance to win the race."
As it so happened , Letarte and Earnhardt became fast friends away from the track as well as clicking as coworkers on it.
"It's just very easy to spend time around him, and I think he thinks the same of me," Letarte said. "We get along really well. We're friends. He spends time with me and my family. He respects what's important to me, and I respect what's important to him. We have a level of respect between us that all great friendships are built upon, and I think we have one.
"It's very hard to go into battle with someone when you don't have a great foundation. I don't think you have to be friends, but you have to respect one another. Fortunately, we are friends -- but we also respect one another. I never question his desire; I hope he never questions mine. That allows us to go into battle and when things get tough, we can be very matter of fact about what the issue is -- and not have to work through a whole bunch of other mud to get there."
Earnhardt added simply, "We seemed to really click right from the get-go."
As for this year, they'll again play summer basketball together -- Earnhardt is a "decent shooting guard" and the much taller Letarte more of an inside force. They'll also probably cook out once or twice and hang out. But in between all that, and much more importantly, they expect to be more competitive than ever on the race track. Earnhardt said he's even looking forward to those early-morning skull sessions in the garage on race weekends.
"I understood once we got to doing it that I found that place enjoyable and that I wanted to be there," Earnhardt said. "It's been good. He's an easy guy to be around. None of this works is he doesn't have the right personality. He deserves a lot of credit. He took on a tough job here; it's a tough little gig for him. But he's done well with it so far.
"I don't ask a whole lot of him other than not to change. The guy he was last year was perfect. The more of that, the better."