Now that he is running well and in the Chase for the Championship, they are telling us that it has little to do with Junior and everything to do with crew chief Steve Letarte. Well, folks...you can’t have it both ways.
From Hinton to Menzer to Larry Mac, the NASCAR media has been more than willing to take aim at Earnhardt Jr.’s performance. Questions have arisen about Junior’s desire, talent, attitude, in-car communication and even his fitness.
And while each member of the media has a different hypothesis for precisely why Junior hasn’t run up front the past two seasons, they have all come to a single conclusion regarding who bears responsibility for the problem.
Now that Junior is back in the Chase among the sport’s elite, those same media members are reluctant to acknowledge that Earnhardt Jr. is part of the solution.
The solution of course is crew chief Steve Letarte. And there is more than a touch of irony here that it is the much maligned Letarte, decimated on a weekly basis by media and fans alike for Jeff Gordon’s inability to reach victory lane, who one year later is being hailed as genius, gifted leader, guru, psychologist, or the ever popular…cheerleader.
Apparently, just as he deserved the brunt of the blame for Gordon’s failures, he now deserves the bulk of the credit for Earnhardt Jr.’s resurgence.
But the reality for the media who have long ago written Junior off as a footnote much be must more sobering. Junior, apparently, has not forgotten how to drive a race car. And in 2011, he has been focused and nearly mistake-free behind the wheel,
In fact, with the exception of hitting the commitment cone at Darlington and flat-spotting a tire coming onto pit road at Kentucky, he has been nearly letter perfect. He has spent 100 more laps on the lead lap than any other driver, paces the Cup series in top 20 finishes, and only 5 drivers have passed as many cars inside the top 15 as Earnhardt Jr.
But the media refuses to see it that way. The summer swoon is all Junior’s while the season’s successes belong to Letarte. There was no better example of this than last weekend, when Junior willed a crumpled race car to a 16th-place finish.
The car was decent for 5-10 laps after each restart and then wrecking every corner for the next 50. Junior, not only hung onto it, but pushed it to the limit and showcased his car control, patience, and determination in a truly masterful driving performance.
Yet, instead of reading about Junior’s achievement, we have had to digest a week of misguided prose. Words like “squeaked,” “survived” and “salvaged” were used to describe Earnhardt’s Jr.’s run to the chase, while the job of Letarte and the crew working on the car over 15 pit stops has been praised (deservedly so).
Can you even imagine if Kyle Busch had driven that piece of scrap metal to a 16th-place finish? The media would be telling us he was the only driver alive capable of that herculean feat.
Heck, Darrell Waltrip would have needed a respirator for the breath taken away by all those chase-making saves had Busch been behind the wheel.
Look, I am not here to tell members of the media how to think or what to write. Each person is entitled to their own opinion, and those in the media have been given the opportunity to express theirs publicly.
They don’t have to like Earnhardt Jr., and it is their prerogative to believe that the struggles of the 88 over the past two seasons rest squarely on his shoulders.
But I do think media members have a responsibility to be consistent. And if Junior’s talent held Lance McGrew’s team back in 2009 and 2010, then someone in the media ought to have the courage to say that it’s been Mark Martin’s talent that has held them back in 2011.
Unfortunately for us, the NASCAR media is a little short on courage and long on pride.