For years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. heard he was overrated. He heard critics say he’s better at selling T-shirts than winning races, and living off his family’s name.
Crew chief Steve Letarte heard the same things. He couldn’t help Jeff Gordon win, and he was holding Earnhardt back.
And car owner Rick Hendrick has seen the blogs that suggest the best equipment in his race shop goes to Jimmie Johnson.
Last Sunday’s dominant victory in the rain-plagued Daytona 500 did more than break a 55-race losing streak.
It provided absolution.
“I’ve been pretty vindicated, but I’m in a good place now,” Earnhardt said this week. “I got my priorities in better shape. I feel, like I said, we’re embarking on a season that could be something really special for me.”
Earnhardt led the final 17 laps Sunday night and easily held off Denny Hamlin’s charge to win NASCAR’s biggest race for the second time. The first came 10 years earlier, when winning was easier with his family’s team.
Since he moved to Hendrick Motorsports, stock car racing’s powerhouse, winning has become problematic and frustrating.
While it’s only a small step — just his third victory in 215 races since Earnhardt joined Hendrick for the 2008 season — it was a significant step, Letarte said.
“It’s kind of like Dale said, winning reminds you how great this sport is, why we all did it, why we’re all here,” Letarte said. “It’s really as simple as that. It seems odd, but that’s really what it comes down to.”
Seventeen of Earnhardt’s career victories in the Sprint Cup series were with Dale Earnhardt Inc. The move to Hendrick was supposed to create one of the biggest powerhouses in the sport’s history.
It instead has become one of racing’s biggest soap operas.
“It was a lot of pressure, an awful lot of pressure, an awful lot of high expectations,” Hendrick said. “We didn’t have the success that we thought we’d have.
“But we never gave up. I was as determined as ever. I told him that we would get it right and we would do what we set out to do, and we were not going to stop. I felt like I let him down; he felt like he let me down. But we locked arms and said, ‘We’re going to figure it out.’ ”
Earnhardt’s cousin, Tony Eury Jr., was fired as the crew chief early in the second year with the team as the team tried to find answers. The third-generation driver also didn’t find any success with Brian Whitesell or Lance McGrew calling the shots.
Hendrick moved Letarte from Gordon’s team after they won nine races in five years, including a winless season in 2010.
Letarte announced last month he would quit at the end of the season to take a job as a commentator for NBC in 2014.
“I think I’m going to have a lot of those moments this year,” Letarte said. “I’ve done this since I was a 16-year-old kid. I don’t know anything else. … Everyone has a bucket list, and you don’t work in racing without having the Daytona 500 on your bucket list.”
It will take another 10 months for Earnhardt, Letarte and Hendrick to prove a single victory is more than a fluke. The 11-time most popular driver has been fooled before, along with most of his fans, in putting too much significance in a one victory.
Somehow, Earnhardt said, this one seems different.
“I never was bothered by being called ‘overrated’ because it’s such a broad term,” he said. “When people really pick at your determination, your drive, your hunger, that bothered me more than anything else did, because I grew up around the sport and I love it to death. I would do anything for NASCAR. I’d do anything for the health of the sport. I’d sacrifice anything for it.”
NASCAR’s new format to qualify for the Chase for the Championship made winning a necessary element to making the playoff field. Despite all that, Earnhardt actually would have won the championship a year ago with consistent runs in the top 10 — but no wins.
Now he’s the first qualifier for this year’s playoffs. After struggling through so much disappointment in the past two years, Earnhardt is committed to send Letarte to the television booth on top.
“On that last ride, you let it all hang out,” he said. “This is Steve’s last ride. He’s going to let the rough side drag all year. He’s got a little racing left in him. I think he’s going to try to get it all out. That’s good for me. I’m fortunate to be on the ride with him.”
And to finally find vindication.