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Earnhardt Jr. says ‘mojo back,’ and it’s just in time

NASCAR Pocono Auto Racing
Matt Slocum - AP
Dale Earnhardt Jr. waits in the garage stall as his car is adjusted during a practice session for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Pocono Raceway. Earnhardt will go for a season sweep on Sunday.

LONG POND, Pa. Dale Earnhardt Jr. proudly proclaimed this week, “I’ve got my mojo back.”

There isn’t likely anyone in NASCAR who would disagree.

Earnhardt has already won twice in the Sprint Cup Series this season, including the Daytona 500, and is running consistently well enough to be considered a serious contender for the series championship.

He’ll start ninth in Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway, attempting to become just the seventh driver in NASCAR history to win both of the track’s Cup races in the same season.

From another perspective, however, this week also marks the beginning of the end for Earnhardt – the end of his relationship with crew chief, Steve Letarte.

Letarte, who orchestrated Earnhardt’s turnaround from a dismal start of his stint at Hendrick Motorsports, is leaving at season’s end to become an analyst for NBC Sports’ NASCAR TV coverage next season.

“Every race gets a little bit harder knowing this is Steve’s last year,” Earnhardt said. “I know that winding down into the Chase it is going to get pretty emotional for both of us.”

Letarte’s replacement, Greg Ives, was named by HMS earlier this week.

The decision was an important one for Earnhardt – he didn’t want the issue to remain “in limbo” deep into the season and the choice reassured him the mojo that’s returned won’t soon be lost again.

“We are not trying to photocopy Steve and plug in a guy just like him,” Earnhardt said. “We want to try to get better. I think we have in making this decision.”

Performance means everything to Earnhardt, perhaps even to his detriment at times.

Even if other things in his life are going well, if he is not performing well on the race track, everything else takes a back seat.

“None of it really matters unless we are running well on Sunday,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know whether that is the right way. I don’t know if I have my priorities in order or not, but performing well on Sunday is No. 1 in my life.

“That is probably the way it will be until I’m not driving anymore.”

That may sound harsh, but Letarte said Earnhardt’s philosophy is a common one found in competitive motorsports.

“Racing is not just a career, it’s a lifestyle,” Letarte said. “If you only treat it as a career, you’ll only be average. If you want to be above average, you need to treat it more than a career.”

While Earnhardt’s on-track results have picked up in recent seasons, Letarte said his driver has never been anything but 100 percent devoted to the No. 88 team.

“When I took over in 2011, we asked him for some time commitment and things like that and there was never a question, there was never an issue,” he said. “He drives every lap of the race 100 percent.”

Letarte, who has spent his entire NASCAR career at HMS, said he expected making final visits to tracks like Daytona and Indianapolis might trigger some sentimental feelings about his final season as a crew chief drawing to a close.

He was surprised to find they didn’t, but something did change this past week.

“It wasn’t until Greg was named and then it was like it was starting to get real,” Letarte said. “You read all the stories about this guy Greg and you’re like, ‘What job is he getting?’ and suddenly it’s ‘Oh yeah, he’s taking my job.’ So, it got front and center a little bit.”

Letarte said he remains confident of No. 88 team’s potential the rest of the season and the future under a different leader.

“I have all the faith in the world in Greg. We have a great group of guys on this team and he is probably going to be able to push this group farther than I ever could have pushed them,” he said.

“I just want to leave Homestead disappointed that it’s over, not disappointed because I wish I could have done something different.”

Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.
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