[media-credit name=”Dan Sanger” align=”alignright” width=”259″][/media-credit]It was never supposed to be like this. The story wasn’t supposed to be written this way. The plot one that was never considered.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his signing with Hendrick Motorsports in late 2007 the assumption was that he was soon headed toward many wins and his first championship. Not that he would win one race, struggle so bad in some of the sports top equipment and go through many internal changes only to see nothing work.
Having only two wins in four-and-a-half years at HMS? Many in the Earnhardt Jr. corner would have laughed at the absurdity. But here he is, snapping his 143 race winless streak to capture his second point-paying race with HMS and 19th of his career.
Much has changed since 2008. Crew chiefs Tony Eury Jr. and Lance McGrew have come and gone, giving it their best shot to make the sports most popular driver a winner. When they didn’t, Steve Letarte go the call. And who can ever forget when Hendrick announced a major change for three of his four teams by switching crew chiefs and cars.
Earnhardt Jr. going from what had been the newly formed 88 shop to moving into the shop with Jimmie Johnson and driving old Jeff Gordon cars. Hendrick doing everything in his power to make Earnhardt Jr. competitive again, changing everything he could, moving pieces and parts that weren’t bolted down. The biggest change pairing Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte, whom he got to continue to praise on Sunday for a performance in which Earnhardt Jr. led 95 of 200 laps in his Dark Knight Rises Chevrolet.
“They just get along so good,” said Hendrick. “I think the chemistry is the best I’ve seen with any crew chief and driver. And you just look at the way they’ve been running and had a lot of speed, you knew it was going to come.
“And just try to say, Dale, don’t worry about that, man. You’re almost leading the points here. You’ve got more top 10s than anybody. When you run second, third and fourth, you’re going to win races. And we hated Pocono, took a chance, but there was too much on the line. I can tell you that’s the longest 18 laps I’ve ever spent, at the end of this race.”
Made worse because Hendrick was sitting at home, not standing atop the pit box looking things over. The mind can wonder while watching and listening to the TV broadcast. Even for Hendrick, who has now won 203 NSCS races, he knows it’s never over until it’s over.
“I was doing laps around my couch, trying to end this race,” he said. “Batman was in a hurry. I was too nervous to stand still. Linda [Hendrick’s wife] and I were just watching it, come on, no problems. I was so afraid there was going to be a caution, or something was going to happen.”
Since his Father’s Day win at Michigan in 2008 Earnhardt Jr. has finished second on seven different occasions. Experiencing close, rough weekends and everything in between. Now the drought is over, the slate wiped clean, focus being celebrate big and then go try to win again.
And Earnhardt Jr. he wants his owner to enjoy this win for as long as possible. It was a long time in the making.
“I told him he should have a good excuse for not being there,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “He better be on a boat somewhere in the Keys or something. But he said he was at home but they were thrilled to death, so I know that no matter where he was, he enjoyed this.
“I told him that I had to thank him for sticking with me and getting me back to Victory Lane and he went through hell and high water to make it happen and he should enjoy the win.”
After the company won their 200th race at Darlington last month with Jimmie Johnson, country music star Brad Paisley joined in the celebration. Hendrick says there’s no telling what they’ll do for this win.
“We do like to celebrate together because the organization just works so hard and they want to see Junior do so well,” he said. “So stay tuned.”
When the dust finally settles, the champagne finished, confetti cleared and Quicken Loans 400 trophy in its new home, Earnhardt Jr. and company will begin focusing on an even bigger accomplishment. He now sits second in points, just four markers behind leader Matt Kenseth heading into Sonoma.
Even better, when the Chase starts in September it will come with better position for Earnhardt Jr. than in the past. He now has the bonus points to go with winning, something he’s never had in his previous Chase appearances.
And Hendrick is ready to start talking and thinking champion and adding another one to his collection. That being a first with Earnhardt Jr. The way the No. 88 National Guard / AMP Energy team has started the season it certainly seems possible. They were already on the list of contenders and a win solidifies that status.
A status many expected years ago. Consistency, wins and championships being a big reason for signing with HMS in the first place. But, better late than never.
“When you see a car and a driver get momentum, and all the cars are running real well, they’re sharing information, and Dale is just switched on,” Hendrick said. “He’s got the confidence, Stevie has the touch and every week they’re the best by far.
“I think he’s sitting in the cat bird seat to win his first championship.”