Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make his 500th career Sprint Cup Series start on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he says it’s “not that big of a milestone for me.”
Why? Because the Hendrick Motorsports driver, who turned 39 on Thursday, plans to be driving for a lot longer.
“I’m just hoping I’m around for at least 250 or 500 more (starts),” he told reporters.
How long would that be? Well, 250 more starts is approximately seven more Cup seasons — he would be 46 then. And 500 more starts? That’s 14 more years, which would leave Earnhardt as a 53-year-old.
While it might be hard to imagine him racing that long (even ageless wonder Mark Martin is 54), Earnhardt said he still feels great.
“Getting older is not awesome, but it’s all how you feel, I suppose,” he said. “I feel 20. I feel good.”
Earnhardt said he’s been “blessed” to have the opportunity to race for as long as he has already. This is his 14th full-time season of Cup racing and he also had two years in the Nationwide Series.
Though he hasn’t won a Cup championship, Earnhardt has 19 career wins (including the Daytona 500) and has made the Chase six times in 10 years.
“I feel thankful every weekend to be able to get in some of the best cars in the series,” he said. “I really mean that from my heart. It’s truly been a dream career for me.
“I never took it for granted that I would be driving race cars all my life and would be able to make a living doing it, so it makes me reflect on that kind of thing.”
Earnhardt, 38, says he still thinks a championship can happen for him and is confident there are many more years in racing ahead of him
Steve Letarte’s notebooks and computer are open, and the No.88 car’s crew chief has his head buried in both.
It’s just a few hours before the green flag of Bristol Motor Speedway’s night race, but he pauses to consider a question.
How long can Dale Earnhardt Jr., about to embark on his career-best third consecutive Chase for the Sprint Cup, keep his consistent finishes going?
As it turns out, that’s somewhat of a loaded question.
“We have been remarkably consistent, but that consistency is starting to get a little old,” Letarte tells USA TODAY Sports. “We want to be great. And to be great, you’re going to have to take some bigger shots. Sometimes they don’t hit, and when they don’t hit it’s usually pretty painful.
“You’ve got to ask yourself what you want to do. If you’re just looking for a consistent race team, we’re there. But I think we all want to take some more risks.”
Welcome to the 2013 Chase, where Earnhardt, Letarte and their crew will have a chance to break their consistent mold in hopes of attaining a greater glory.
Earnhardt, 38, says he still thinks a championship can happen for him and is confident there are many more years in racing ahead of him.
“It really comes down to how bad you want it,” Earnhardt tells USA TODAY Sports. “And I think my want, my determination and my drive is stronger than it’s ever been.
“There’s a little tiny bit of urgency as we get older — we’re not in our 20s anymore. You don’t look at it as like time is running out, but you definitely know the opportunities are running out. So you’ve got to work hard and not squander those chances by making personal mistakes or not working hard enough.”
Letarte says the team could maintain its current level — contending for maybe one race win a year and sitting seventh to 12th in the standings — for a long time. “But I don’t think anybody is pleased with that,” he says.
Earnhardt is tied with Joey Logano with 14 top-10 finishes entering the Chase, second most in the series. Last year, he had 20 top-10s despite missing two races with a concussion.
But wins — considered a key to capturing the championship — still have been hard to come by.
Earnhardt has one victory in the last five seasons, which isn’t going to get it done in a 10-race title run.
Consistency not enough
It certainly wasn’t enough last year; the team was pretty much out of the Chase by the time Earnhardt suffered a second concussion in a six-week period at Talladega Superspeedway. A great regular season masked some of the team’s issues, Earnhardt says.
“We started the Chase, and it exposed we weren’t quite (good) enough as far as having pure speed every week to contend,” Earnhardt says.
“With the numbers some guys were going to put up, we weren’t going to be able to match it.”
That’s why, even though it once was a positive for a team that needed to right the ship, as Letarte puts it, being consistent is no longer good enough.
Over the last 2½ years the team has been a little guarded, Letarte says — “to make sure we build our confidence and consistency.”
Well, mission accomplished. But now it’s time for the next step.
“You’re not going to win the championship with a bunch of top-fives and top-10s,” Letarte says. “You need wins, too. It’s not a huge amount of bonus points, but they make a huge difference.
“We need to win a couple races in the Chase to really contend for the championship.”
Taking risks in an attempt to get better results doesn’t just include pit strategies and fuel gambles. It’s in how Hendrick Motorsports builds the cars, which cars Letarte chooses to bring to the track and how he sets them up.
“The cars, I think, have been faster and running closer toward the front,” Earnhardt says. “I’ve been more on the offense, and that’s a little more promising to me.”
Talent to take title?
But though the team is guardedly optimistic about its chances, not everyone thinks the positive attitude can translate into performance.
Former NASCAR driver and Fox TV analyst Kyle Petty says a race team can’t just flip a switch and suddenly gain more speed when the Chase starts. If Earnhardt hasn’t shown enough speed to win races by now, Petty says, he’s not going to be a title contender.
The old points system, which relied much more on consistency because it took the entire season into account, was better for Earnhardt’s driving style, Petty says. A shootout format in the Chase — created when the points are reset after 26 races — is not.
“It amazes me we’re talking about a guy who has got two wins in six years even being a championship contender,” Petty says. “Just look at the numbers. I’m sorry, they don’t add up. They didn’t add up for me, either.”
Petty says he has something in common with Earnhardt: They’re both proof not every driver who straps on a helmet is championship material, even if they’re the sons of NASCAR’s only seven-time champions (Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.).
“That’s not a knock, that’s just fact,” Petty says. “I love Dale Jr. I think he’s great for the sport, and I think he’s a great race car driver on certain days. But he’s not Jimmie Johnson and he’s not Tony Stewart and he’s not Jeff Gordon. And he’s just not going to be.”
Team Earnhardt strives to match Johnson
It’s the elephant in the room for Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans.
How could the No. 88 team operate out of the same Hendrick Motorsports building as the five-time champion No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson — with the same cars and same personnel — but with far less positive results?
Crew chief Steve Letarte has wondered, too.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are days where I say, ‘Why does it seem easier for them to find the success that we want?’ ” he said. “But at the same time, we see that as a huge positive.”
Letarte has access to everything crew chief Chad Knaus is doing in the 48/88 shop. He knows exactly what is in Johnson’s car. And they have the same equipment.
Johnson and Knaus just so happen to be pretty good at what they do, Letarte said.
“We share cars, share a building, share people, share mechanics, share notes,” Letarte said. “It’s not a video game. You’ve got to go out and perform, and I think a lot of people forget that.
“I’d much rather have them in our building and see the success than wonder what it is across the street.”