Earnhardt Jr. Looks Back On "My Last Straw"

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte

Steve Letarte and Dale Earnhadrt Jr. celebrate their Daytona 500 victory earlier this season. (Photo: Getty Images)

LONG POND, Pa. - The wording seemed strange. Could it have been just a wrong turn of a phrase? Or could it have a deeper meaning?

When asked about crew chief Steve Letarte earlier this week, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, in part, “I knew that when we got together, that it was kind of my last straw.’’

Wait.

A last straw?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

While Earnhardt endured his worst seasons in 2009 and 2010 before being paired with Letarte, he remained the sport’s most popular driver. That’s why that phrase “last straw” was so striking. It wasn’t as if Earnhardt was going to disappear in this sport, but Earnhardt worried about his future at that point.

“We couldn’t find a way why me and Lance (McGrew) didn’t work,’’ Earnhardt said of McGrew, his crew chief from May 2009 through the 2010 season. “We could speculate and point fingers at reasons why me and Tony (Eury Jr.) didn’t work out (before McGrew).

“Me and Lance, we got along. We had good guys with us. There just wasn’t a reason or area you could say this is why this team isn’t working.’’

As Earnhardt struggled, teammate Jimmie Johnson won his fourth and fifth consecutive championships, teammate Jeff Gordon finished third in the points one year and ninth the other, and teammate Mark Martin enjoyed a renaissance, winning five races in 2009 to finish second to Johnson in the points and placing 13th in the points the following season.

Earnhardt, it seemed was headed in the wrong direction.

“I felt responsible with how we ran when I was driving for Lance,’’ Earnhardt said. “I couldn’t account for the performance because there was no other smoking gun.’’

Then car owner Rick Hendrick decided to change driver-crew chief pairings and put Letarte, who had been with Gordon, with Earnhardt.

“If I don’t run well with him, how am I going to justify the equipment I’m in, the people I’m working with?’’ Earnhardt said he wondered after being paired with Letarte. “How am I going to justify being worthy of that?

“I don’t know that a lot of people thought my career would come around. I believed in my myself the whole time, but I didn’t know if I would get the chance to prove it. I thought a lot of people might have given up on me. People that did believe in me maybe didn’t think that I would contend as well and regroup and get the right things going.

“So, yeah, when I got put with Steve ... I don’t think I could have expected or be rewarded with another opportunity if me and him struggled. I believed in myself, but,  man, I can’t be the only one in the whole ... garage. If I failed with Steve, I couldn’t blame everybody else for giving up. I felt like it was my last straw with maybe everyone else, but not with myself.’’

Letarte had the perfect mentality for Earnhardt. A natural cheerleader and tireless worker, Letarte told Earnahrdt he would get the car the way Earnhardt needed and infused Earnhardt with confidence. They started strong in 2011. While they didn’t win, it seemed only a matter of when as opposed to if it would happen. They broke through at Michigan, snapping a 143-race winless streak. Earnhardt ranked in the top five in points the entire 26-race regular season. While he didn’t win last year, Earnhardt finished fifth in the points, scoring a career-high 22 top-10 finishes.

He opened this season - Letarte’s final year before moving to NBC Sports next year - by winning the Daytona 500 and enters Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway fifth in the points.

“Luckily, it’s worked out and people realize that I’ve got good ability and given the good opportunities I can be competitive,’’ said Earnhardt, who starts eighth Sunday. “Me and Steve we’ve led the points off and on. We’ve run as good as we’ve ever run. I’m thrilled. I feel fortunate. I really came close to maybe not being out all together but .... those resources and talent ain’t going to be there forever.’’

That’s something Earnhardt doesn’t have to worry about now.. Instead, he can focus on winning a championship.

Motor Racing Network – "The Voice of NASCAR" – will have live coverage of Sunday’s Pocono 400 from Pocono Raceway. Air time is noon (ET), with live streaming at MRN.com.

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