Dale Earnhardt Jr. rode into Victory Lane at Pocono Raceway on June 8, enjoying what is looking a lot like the best season of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. His triumph in that race was his second of the season, meaning he'd already won as many races this year as he had the seven previous seasons combined. And with this year's points system favoring wins much more than consistency, Earnhardt is now a lock to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff that begins in September.
Earnhardt is grateful in his celebration. "[When I] thank those guys on my team, I really mean it," he says of his crew. "Especially Steve Letarte — this is his last year."
Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief since 2011, has helped engineer a racing renaissance in his driver. He will leave at the end of this season to join NBC's on-camera lineup when the network begins its NASCAR coverage in 2015. And all the sweat and effort have led to this: a final campaign with Earnhardt that began with a season-opening Daytona 500 win on Feb. 23.
As the circuit returns to Daytona July 5 for the midseason race (on TNT), Earnhardt — who is more committed than ever to finding enough speed to win races — senses a different clock ticking. The 11-time winner of NASCAR's Most Popular Driver Award would like nothing more than to add his first Sprint Cup to the mantle. Thanks to Letarte's guidance on the track and at the shop — and, just as important, the steadying influence of Amy Reimann, his girlfriend for the past several years — Earnhardt has come to embrace the inspirational power of hard work and contentment. And, when the season ends, Earnhardt hopes to finish what he started at the Daytona 500, with Letarte by his side.
"Standing in Victory Lane after the Daytona 500, I thought, 'This whole season needs to be like this,'" Earnhardt said at Pocono, two days before his win. "We need to do whatever we can to make this season be as good as it can be."
There's no doubt in anyone's mind — least of all Earnhardt's — that he is operating in a different gear now. For years, he spoke about a greater sense of maturity in his life as if it were more an aspiration than reality. He displayed a kind of impulsiveness that, by his own admission, no longer fits a man who turns 40 on Oct. 10.
"I find myself looking back in the past at my morals and values and priorities and wondering why I did things a certain way," says Earnhardt, who has done his share of partying at Whisky River, the bar he owns in Charlotte. "It's not so much regret — I had a lot of fun. But some people get it right away and I sat there and was a frat boy for 10 years and didn't mature as quickly as maybe I should have. I look back and it's like a totally different life."
Things hit a crescendo when he signed with racing team Hendrick Motorsports before the 2008 season — after ugly contract negotiations over ownership issues with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, ultimately led to his gut-wrenching decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company founded by his legendary racer father. Three seasons later, after working with two different crew chiefs, he'd earned a total of one victory in the most aimless period of his driving career.
That's when team owner Rick Hendrick made the savvy move to switch up his race shops, putting Earnhardt in with perennial champ Jimmie Johnson and then choosing Letarte — who had been Jeff Gordon's crew chief — to work with Earnhardt. Earnhardt and his crew became more inclined to share race information with Johnson and his powerhouse team, led by crew chief Chad Knaus. Gordon had won 10 races in five and a half seasons with Letarte and had a second-place ranking in 2007, but by 2011, they were not always on the same page. Hendrick hoped that Letarte's excessively positive attitude would rub off on Earnhardt.
"Conveniently, our personalities align well enough and we became friends the first year," Letarte says. "That allowed us to be real honest on the professional side and respect the amount of work we each put in. You have to really believe the other guy is trying as hard as he can."
That effort did not come easily. The 2011 season started off poorly; two races in, Earnhardt was suddenly dogged by the idea that nothing might reverse the awful frustrations of the previous seasons. Then, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, something clicked, and he recognized his put-up-or-shut-up moment had arrived. "We were struggling in practice," he says. "And I just thought, 'I need to push all my chips in with Steve. There can't be any reason this won't work. If my guys are there working, I need to be there.' I didn't wanna have any regrets. I knew this was the last straw for me."
Inspired by Letarte's calm but firm hand, Junior began a turnaround. "Dale hung out with all of us. We made some changes for that Sunday; we went out and ran solidly," Letarte recalls. "And that was the first time we really believed in ourselves."
For more with Dale Earnhardt Jr., pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, June 26!