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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief Greg Ives rolls with the changes

Dale Earnhardt Jr. right, talks with crew chief Greg Ives on the grid prior to qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on May 29, 2015 in Dover, Del.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. right, talks with crew chief Greg Ives on the grid prior to qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on May 29, 2015 in Dover, Del. Getty Images

Greg Ives has become an expert at starting over from scratch.

It’s certainly not the ideal situation each season for a crew chief in NASCAR, but Ives has weathered his changing landscape quite well.

Two years ago, he and driver Regan Smith won two races and finished third in the Xfinity Series standings. Last year, he directed driver Chase Elliott’s Xfinity team, which won three races and the series championship.

The offseason brought another new assignment – Ives replaced Steve Letarte as crew chief in the Sprint Cup Series for NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team.

“The last three years, I’ve had new teams every year. It’s almost old-hat of sorts,” Ives said. “It may not be something you are proud of if you were putting it on a resume, but to me it’s climbing the ladder, something I feel proud about.”

Entering Sunday’s Axalta 400 at Pocono Raceway, Ives and Earnhardt are off to a strong start. Earnhardt already has a victory this season (at Talladega, Ala.), which virtually guarantees him a spot in the championship Chase, and he’s fifth in the series standings.

He also swept victories at both Pocono races last season, putting him in excellent position to add a third on Sunday. He’ll start 20th.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some growing pains with the No. 88 team along the way.

There’s also the spotlight – no driver or team gets more attention, and with it scrutiny, than Earnhardt. And when Earnhardt’s legions of fans feel he or his team make a mistake, the wrath of Junior Nation can be swift and unforgiving.

Nobody knows that better than Earnhardt himself.

“Man, when I missed my pit stall at the Daytona 500 that one year, it took two years for people to quit talking about that,” he said. “It did. I still hear about it like, ‘Are you going to miss your pit stall?’

“I mean, come on. That was four years ago.”

Letarte, now a NASCAR TV analyst for NBC Sports, was very active on social media and got a first-hand view of the numbers of eyes trained on his team’s every move.

Ives has a much different approach, he rarely utilizes social media and tends to insulate himself from outside influences and distractions.

“I joke with him about (what the fans say), and he seems to just like stare right through me like he has no idea what I’m talking about,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t think that he has been affected by it at all yet. Certainly, I want him focused on the car and what’s important to him.

“He’s definitely got his mind on the right things.”

Ives said Earnhardt’s fans’ expectations aren’t really all that different from his own, but he tends to remain focused on what he can control.

“If you take every criticism on one call or one thing that happens, it sometimes can probably wear on you,” he said. “If I focus on that, than I can’t do my job the way I need to.

“The only thing they want as a group and we do as a team is to be competitive every week, make the right calls at the right time, including making calls to potentially put you in position to get a win.”

While Ives was no stranger to Earnhardt, having worked at Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports organization since 2013, Earnhardt said Ives’ new role as his crew chief has taken some adjustment.

Over time, Earnhardt said he and Letarte had become best friends and their friendship rolled into their working relationship.

Ives, Earnhardt has found, is “super-super serious.” In no way does Earnhardt consider that a problem, however.

“This is his dream come true to be able to crew chief in the Cup Series, and I want to give him every opportunity to be successful and us as a team,” he said. “We’re in a good position winning races, running well; we don’t want to take a step back.

“So, it’s really all business right now for the time being,” he added. “We win us some more races, we can be a little more jovial. But until then, we need to win some more races.”

A third consecutive win at Pocono would certainly make a good start.

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