By Matt Crossman
CHARLOTTE -- The klieg lights shine on Dale Earnhardt Jr. The rest of the studio is dark. A microphone dangles near his forehead. A script, printed on a white sheet of paper, hangs from a metal arm in front of his face. He reads ad after ad for the various Mountain Dew drinks that sponsor him.
In front of him and to his right, the door opens and closes as people come and go. Fifteen, then 14, then 16, 17, 18 people watch. There are Mountain Dew people and Hendrick Motorsports people and a wardrobe/makeup woman, who also spritzes the soda cans so they glisten for the commercials. Earnhardt's offseason beard, two-plus months in the making, is so gloriously fluffy that there might be someone in here who is solely devoted to tending to it. He looks at the door and smiles. "Put a lock on that thing," he says, and then he gets back to work.
As he reads, he gestures with his hands, even though these are radio spots. He asks customers at Hy-Vee, Piggly Wiggly and seemingly every grocery store from Miami to Anchorage to buy Diet Mountain Dew. He rolls through a couple dozen ads with hardly a stumble. Then, while promoting a contest, he urges race fans to "check out the detai --"
He stops. "Shit," he says.
He starts over. "The deta --." He stops again. "Shit."
"The de -- … Shit."
Five times he tries to say "the details." Five times his mouth doesn't cooperate. He gets it right -- but wants a do-over anyway because he thinks he dropped a "y" in there (he mocks himself: "detai-yels,") although perhaps only he heard it that way. He finally pronounces "the details" the way he wants and moves on.
The details. In NASCAR, perhaps more than any other sport, the team and driver must get them right, obsess over them, constantly double-check them. A driver's performance is never more than the sum of the collective details, and every little bit that's off robs the car of precious speed or precise handling or both.
For years, Earnhardt Jr. fretted over his performance, convinced that the details in the car under him were off. He finished so bad for so long he wondered whether his time as a competitive driver was over. NASCAR's favorite son thought the sun had set on his career.
But now, as the 2014 season opens, Earnhardt's confidence is at an all-time high, thanks to three straight strong seasons, capped by a nine-race stretch to close 2013 that was as good as anything he has produced in 10 years. Only a blown engine in the first race of the Chase kept him out of the championship hunt. For the first time since 2004, he opens the season with realistic championship hopes.
That's huge news for him, of course, and it's also huge for NASCAR, which after an offseason of turmoil would love a big year from its biggest star. To understand how huge, you have to understand how far Earnhardt had fallen.
* * *
The happiest I have ever seen a driver, or any athlete for that matter, was Earnhardt when he climbed out of his car after winning the Daytona 500 in 2004. He jumped into the arms of his crew, and if they hadn't been there to grab him he might have floated right out of the infield. Eight months short of his 30th birthday, he conquered the biggest race in the country, three years after his dad died in it.
During his postrace press conference, Earnhardt was interrupted to take a phone call. He told the person on the other end thank you and said it was good to see him, and that the race had been the most exciting of his life. He closed with, "Take it easy." He paused a beat and then asked for the phone back. He wanted to write down the phone number because it's not every day that a person talks to the president of the United States.
After the Daytona 500 win, Earnhardt racked up five more victories in what looked like a breakout season. He entered the final race with a slim chance to win the championship. He didn't, but it seemed like only a matter of time before he would have one, if not more -- the man with the most famous name in racing was growing into it. He didn't look, act or drive like his father, but he had far more wins at 29 (14) than his old man had (one). Greatness seemed sure to follow.
After forcing out his uncle, Tony Eury Sr., as crew chief, a move Earnhardt now considers a major mistake born of his own arrogance and ignorance, he plummeted to 19th in points in 2005. Over the next few years, he endured an ugly public feud with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, who owned the team he drove for, Dale Earnhardt Inc.
When she refused to cede control of the company to him, he signed with Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season, and it looked like a perfect fit. Earnhardt needed stability, and there is no more stable sports organization in the country than Hendrick Motorsports. Team owner Rick Hendrick, already a mentor for Earnhardt, would assume the fatherly, authoritarian role he lacked.
He had brought along his cousin, Tony Eury Jr., as crew chief, but they bickered so incessantly and performed so poorly that they had to be split up midway through the 2009 season. Earnhardt languished at 25th in points in 2009 and 21st in points in 2010. His confidence ran dry. "You're thinking, damn, is this it? Is this as good as it gets from here on out?" he says. "How much more of this do I want to go through?"
He never seriously thought about quitting. But he didn't like going to the racetrack very much. He looked at Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, saw them win races and championships with the same equipment he had, and wondered what they were doing right that he wasn't. He didn't trust that the people who were trying to make his cars faster would do so. He convinced himself it was up to him to make the cars fast, and he was failing miserably at that. He couldn't figure out what was wrong, and because he couldn't figure out what was wrong, he couldn't fix it.
So Hendrick fixed it for him.
A few days after the 2010 season ended, Steve Letarte, who had been Jeff Gordon's crew chief for four-plus seasons, was summoned to a meeting with Marshall Carlson, president and chief operating officer of Hendrick Motorsports, and Hendrick.
As Letarte walked to the meeting, he wondered which other race teams were hiring, because he thought Carlson and Hendrick might fire him. He had just gone through a winless 2010 season with Gordon, the four-time champion and one of the sport's all-time greats. If he couldn't win with Gordon, whom could he win with?
But he was not fired. He was told he would become Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief. Within 15 minutes, Letarte was in his car and driving to Earnhardt's house. He didn't want his expectations about his new driver to be polluted by conversations with others before they met. He knew gaining Earnhardt's trust would be the biggest factor in their relationship.
"He's not the type of guy who'll just jump in and believe you have his best interest in mind because you're paid to do so," Letarte said. "He's surrounded by people every day that tell him what he wants to hear because it's easier for them than to tell him what the truth might be."
The two talked for half an hour. Letarte needed to hear from Earnhardt that he wanted to win. Earnhardt needed to hear from Letarte that he would build fast race cars. When Letarte said providing a fast car would be his responsibility, and driving it would be Earnhardt's, relief washed over Earnhardt.
"It was always, 'What's wrong with me? What's wrong with me? What's wrong with me?'" Earnhardt said. "For the first time, it was, 'We're going to get all these pieces and put them together. It's not just you. It's a lot of different things to make it work. And we're going to get them all right.' That made me feel good. It won't all be on me."
When Earnhardt greeted Letarte at the door, he was "apprehensive and nervous and full of doubt." When Letarte left, Earnhardt was convinced Letarte would help him get his career going in the right direction again.
Which is not to say it would be easy or quick.
* * *
Before Letarte and Earnhardt ever went to the racetrack together, Letarte gathered the people who manage Earnhardt's time -- his marketing manager and his public relations representatives from Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports (the Nationwide team Earnhardt owns). Letarte laid out a schedule of Earnhardt's obligations at the racetrack. He would be at the hauler an hour before practice to talk about the car. He would stay after practice until Letarte didn't need him anymore.
Letarte wanted Earnhardt at those pre- and post-practice meetings to answer questions. What is the car doing? Where is it doing it? When is it doing it? How can we make it better?
"Looking back on it, I guess I didn't realize this, but I wasn't really asking," Letarte said. "If he wants to drive in this building in this race car, this is how it works."
Nobody had ever made such demands of Earnhardt before. Some had tried, but he says he either ignored or neglected the requests. And he didn't like it from Letarte at first, either. For years, he had strolled up to the car right as practice started, or maybe even five minutes late, and fled to his motorcoach to play video games when it ended. Now he has to be there an hour before? "I was like, 'God, dang, man. Man, fuck, this ain't any fun,'" he said.
For the first two races of the 2011 season, Earnhardt remained stuck in his old ways. "And then we ran like crap."
The team was still slow in the final practice before the third race of the season. Earnhardt stood in the team's hauler, wondering if he should stay to meet with Letarte or disappear into his motorcoach. "I'm talking to myself: I am not leaving this trailer. I am not going to carry this burden and carry this responsibility. I'm going to be a part of trying to figure out why we're running like we're running."
He and Letarte sat in the back of the hauler and watched the Nationwide race as engineer Kevin Meendering crunched numbers. Meendering threw out questions, Earnhardt answered them, and the next day, he drove faster than he had in years.
Earnhardt has come to love those pre- and post-practice meetings. He chatters so much Meendering sometimes tells him to shut up, especially when he yammers on about fantasy football. (Letarte's team, Boss Hogg, won the Hendrick championship last season.)
"Say two guys are saying the same thing," Earnhardt says. "One guy you're thinking, 'Man, I don't want to take any shit from you.' And the other guy you're thinking, 'I like what you're saying, let's do it.' But they're both saying the same thing. Steve had that connection with me. I heard him, when he would talk and ask me to do stuff, I wanted to do it because he was a good guy and I wanted to make him happy and make him proud and give him the best opportunity to do his job as best he could."
The communication helped make Earnhardt's car fast again, but he was still a long way from contending for wins, never mind a championship. The next step was to get his confidence back. That was no small task: His struggle with confidence has been the defining issue of his career.
* * *
Ed Clark has known Earnhardt since Junior was a young boy. His fondest memory of him is of a visit to the Earnhardt home when Junior was 6 or 7 or 8 years old. Clark threw him off a deck and into a lake. No sooner had Earnhardt hit the water than he climbed up the ladder, asking for another throw. Time after time, 30 times Clark guesses, he tossed him back, until he was so worn out he had to stop. Now the president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, Clark watched as Earnhardt grew from that young boy to an emerging driver caught in his late father's shadow to a man on his own.
"If you get to know Junior, he's really almost two people," Clark says. One is a soft-spoken introvert who is most comfortable when surrounded by the crew of loyal friends he has hung out with for decades. He wonders why in the world he gets so much attention. The other one has grown into his famous name and the responsibility behind it and realizes that it affords him opportunities most people don't have.
One Earnhardt fights doubt.
The other radiates confidence.
You can tell by looking at him and listening to him which one he is at any particular time. Coaxed out of hiding by Letarte's fast cars, the confident Earnhardt looks straight at whomever he is talking to. Words zip out of him as if they are racing to be said first. He tells stories about drinking beer and driving fast, and he charms fans, media and sponsors.
The doubting Earnhardt stares at his feet, and words meander out of him, like they'd rather stay unsaid. He says as little as necessary, and even that is often unintelligible mumbling, and the fans who vote him the Most Popular Driver year after year want to grab him by the firesuit and shake him until the other Dale Jr. falls out.
Now the confident Earnhardt sits in a conference room at Hendrick Motorsports. His phone, on mute, buzzes on the table in front of him. He ignores it. He leans forward, eyes bright blue and popping as he explains the difference between driving without confidence and driving with it, by which he explains the difference between the doubting Earnhardt and the confident Earnhardt.
"When you're not confident, you will not put your car in situations where it can be successful, because you're not confident it can do it. When you're driving a car without confidence, you don't drive offensively, you drive defensively. And a lot of times, you're allowing yourself to be put in situations where you're going to lose positions one after another," he said.
When his car was like that, he wanted to hide -- from his crew chief, from his fans, from everyone he thought he was letting down.
"It's crazy when you drive like that for so long, and then all of a sudden, somebody hands you the wheel of a car that can do a lot of great things. A car that you haven't driven in a long time. You're driving it, and your confidence starts to ooze right back into your body. You'll do something, the car might carry you, and show you what it's capable of. And dare you to go for more. That process starts to repeat itself, and the next thing you know you're doing it every week."
The more fast cars Letarte built, the more Earnhardt's confidence oozed back. He started to become the driver he once was, and the driver he is again. "You're driving to pass, you're driving to catch, you're driving to make a move on a guy," he says. "You don't have any doubt you're going to make that move. Whereas before, you're not even thinking about the guy in front of you because you're trying not to wreck."
As he and Letarte worked together through 2011, 2012 and 2013, Earnhardt produced far better finishes, slowly regaining belief in himself and his cars along the way. The two held each other accountable for the other's performance, and that has led to Earnhardt wanting to drive well to make up for slow cars and Letarte wanting to build fast cars to pull Earnhardt through a bad day.
Earnhardt once had a short fuse but now is much calmer when things go wrong. "This is the most mature I've seen him drive and decision-make in a long time, or ever, really," says T.J. Majors, Earnhardt's spotter since 2007 and friend since 1997. "I think Dale Jr. is more comfortable with himself now, too. When it started to get bad, it was just bad story after bad story after bad story. It was hard for him to even want to go anywhere, show his face anywhere. Now he's the one who's wanting to go out."
Still, the reconstruction of Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains incomplete.
After the 2013 season ended, Earnhardt went to a Hendrick Motorsports banquet. Highlights from the organization's four teams played on a big screen. He saw his teammates celebrating in victory lane. But the only clips of him featured him walking across the garage. That made him mad. He wants to see himself celebrating in victory lane.
His resurgence will not be complete until he starts to win again regularly, which is especially important now that the new points system favors winning so much more than previous systems. A win guarantees a spot in the postseason, and a win in each round of the postseason automatically moves a driver into the next round.
Earnhardt won 14 races in his 20s but only five so far in his 30s (he turns 40 on Oct. 10), and only once in the last five seasons. The most reliable predictor of wins is laps led, according to Andrew Maness of NASCARnomics.com, and the number of laps Earnhardt has led in the last two seasons suggest he ran well enough to have won 1.5 to 2 races each year. With a little luck, any of Earnhardt's four second-place finishes in 2013 could have turned into a win. He broke an engine in one race at Michigan last year and had a flat tire at the other, and his car was good enough to win both. He had a career-high 22 top 10s last season -- the most for any driver without a win since Jamie McMurray went winless in 2004 with 23 top 10s.
What's keeping him out of victory lane? He hasn't blown any races, but he hasn't seized any, either. Letarte is better at making average cars good than good cars great. Earnhardt's average running position drops 4.3 spots from the middle of the race to the end, a sign that the team needs to improve at keeping up with changes.
Earnhardt daydreams about celebrating in victory lane, if not every day, pretty close. "I think about it as much as food," he says. "And I love food."
To complete his comeback, he needs to win.
To start its comeback, NASCAR needs him to win, too.
* * *
Earnhardt hangs out in his team's Hendrick Motorsports shop, talking with crew guys, unaware he will soon hijack Twitter. After he finishes the radio and TV ads, a marketing rep from Mountain Dew sends out a tweet announcing he'll answer questions. He sits next to the rep and eyes her laptop. He is the world's fastest and coolest computer nerd, so he teases her about it. She claims it's new, but he points out the spacebar and mouse are worn out.
As the questions come in, he dictates answers. He insists that his authentic voice gets represented in the responses. When a man tweets that he used Earnhardt's name as a conversation starter with a woman, someone suggests that he reply, "glad I could help." He changes that to, "how'd it end?"
Questions come in so fast it's hard to keep up with them, and #daledewtakeover becomes a trending topic, proof, if any were needed, that the cult of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s personality remains as strong as ever. He has won the Most Popular Driver Award every year since 2003 and seems certain to win it every year until he retires. Maybe even after.
That popularity brings with it unique challenges. The belief throughout the NASCAR world is that Earnhardt is racing's Tiger Woods, and that the better he does, the better it is for the sport. With ratings in the tank and the new points system drawing controversy, now more than ever NASCAR needs something to talk other than what a mess the sport is. Industry insiders want Earnhardt to have a good season because they like him -- and also because it would be good for business. Given the upheaval of the offseason, 2014 is the most important NASCAR season since the Chase was introduced in 2004, which means Earnhardt is peaking at the perfect time.
But whether Earnhardt's resurgence will help NASCAR in any measurable way is an open question. His last two wins have come at Michigan International Speedway, in 2008 and 2012. After he won in 2012, the track made two TV commercials in advance of the next race there to test whether making multiple ads was worth the hassle. One highlighted Junior and his win, and the other featured Kyle Busch. The track showed the ads to a focus group. Only people who identified themselves as Earnhardt fans noticed he was in the ad, and even they told track officials they bought tickets for reasons unrelated to his success at the track. Nobody who bought a ticket did so because Earnhardt had won there.
"If Junior wins at Bristol the week before, it's probably not going to sell us out the next week," says Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway. "Although I do think it would help some and would encourage him to do that."
Earnhardt moves the needle in other ways. Maness researched TV ratings and found a 5 to 10 percent increase the week following an Earnhardt win (but nothing after that). When Earnhardt wins, he leads SportsCenter and pushes NASCAR onto the front page of the sports section.
Only for Earnhardt do fans stand and cheer when he takes the lead. After a controversial caution flag there late in a race in 2004 cost Dale Jr. a win that instead went to Jeff Gordon, fans pelted the track with beer cans. "Our phones lit up after the race that night," says Grant Lynch, the track president. "The ladies that helped me answer the phones, I was telling them, 'You don't have to sit there and let them cuss you out. You can hang up the phone. Just say, "Sir, if you're going to use that kind of language, I'm going to hang up."' That went for three hours," Lynch says.
Earnhardt's website features a podcast with a segment called "Reaction Theatre," in which his fans call in and vent, much like they did after that race in Talladega. If the legions of Junior Nation fans are that passionate when he loses, how loony will they be when he wins?
Measurable or not, his success makes the sport more interesting. In an interview with the Charlotte Observer in 2009, NASCAR chairman Brian France said, "It's sort of like when the NBA doesn't have the L.A. Lakers or Boston -- a couple of their key historic franchises -- in the race. That impacts the league. We're in the same boat."
Earnhardt agrees his success would be good for the sport, but he doesn't feel that as a burden. Not now, at least. He did when he was slow.
"Brian (France) might mention it in an article or something. You're like, 'Damn, dude. I can barely get my ass in gear on the racetrack, much less try to win races. I'm so far off from being competitive I can't even imagine trying to carry, trying to bring excitement to the sport every week.' But now that we're running good, it's realistic to think we could go out and win the championship and do something awesome for the sport."
* * *
Last fall, in the days before a race in Charlotte, Earnhardt heard a troubling rumor: Letarte was leaving for a job in TV. He called and asked his crew chief directly, and it was true. That remained a secret until January, when NBC announced Letarte would be part of its coverage starting in 2015.
So Letarte and Earnhardt have one more season together. Speculation started immediately about how Earnhardt would handle the change. Would he retreat into his shell? He says he is more disappointed that he won't be able to hang out with Letarte than he is worried that his cars will slow down.
He and Letarte have both said all the right things about how the pending departure won't be a distraction and will in fact motivate them to have an even better season, to win one or two or 10 races for Letarte before he leaves. Especially early in the season, Earnhardt will be under close scrutiny because of the pending change. He has a history of winning races in big situations -- the first race at Daytona after his father died, the first race after September 11, the 2004 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt hopes that whoever replaces Letarte will be the last crew chief he ever has, so the decision about whom to hire has enormous implications for the rest of his career. He says he will stay out of the decision-making process because the last time he tried to dictate his own crew chief -- when he forced out his uncle as crew chief at DEI -- it was a disaster. He thought he knew what he needed, when in fact he already had what he needed, and only in the last few years has he emerged from the aftermath of that mistake.
Humbled by his time in the NASCAR wilderness, he says he still doesn't know what he's doing when it comes to picking his own crew chief. He will let Rick Hendrick and Marshall Carlson and other Hendrick officials make the decision for him. He'll answer whatever questions they have and trust them with the rest, much like he has done with Letarte and the race car over the last three seasons. That's how he got fast again, and he figures that's how he'll stay fast.
* * *