A relationship between driver and crew chief is a determining factor of how successful a race team can be. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had several different leaders on his pit box throughout his career. However, his chemistry with crew chief Greg Ives in their first year together seems to have led him to become his team leader for the immediate future.
In 2015, Ives led Earnhardt to three victories in the duo’s first season together. The No. 88 team took the checkered flag at Talladega in the spring, Daytona in July and Phoenix in the fall. Though the chemistry grew as the season went on, Earnhardt still came up short and failed to make it out of the Contender Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
At Talladega in October, Earnhardt lost out on a controversial green-white-checkered restart when the “big one” occurred just past the start-finish line, thus handing the victory to Joey Logano as NASCAR had to go back and look at the final scoring loop before the caution flag waved.
Even though Earnhardt wasn’t able to advance out of the second round in the Chase for the second-consecutive season, he is a big believer in Ives and the job that he does atop the pit box. The former No. 48 team engineer and XFINITY Series championship crew chief had big shoes to fill after former crew chief Steve Letarte made the move to the broadcast booth for NBC.
“He was a rookie and probably had a lot of nervous, maybe not doubts, but just being that guy,” Earnhardt told Speedway Digest at the NASCAR Media Tour. “He’s been in that situation, but he never really had to have control over everyone and so much responsibility with so many people looking at him to make the decisions.”
The relationship resulted in career-tying statistics for Earnhardt. The No. 88 had 16 top fives and accumulated 22 top-10 finishes in 2015, which each tied previous marks he set in both categories.
Arguably, Earnhardt’s best season came in 2004 when he worked with his cousin, Tony Eury Jr. The team picked up six wins and 16 top-five finishes, tying his benchmark record of last season. In 2013, he never took the checkered flag first, but picked up then a career-high 22 top 10s. It was in 2015 when Earnhardt, led by a first-year crew chief tied these numbers and led 287 laps in the process down from over 300 laps led in each of the previous three seasons.
When Earnhardt drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. he was feared on the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. Outside of winning the 2014 Daytona 500, Earnhardt hadn’t won a plate race in 11 years. There was a time when the No. 8, Earnhardt’s former number won four straight races at Talladega spanning from the fall of 2001 to the spring of 2003.
Comparing those numbers to 2015, Earnhardt won two races on the plate tracks. He was at his best inside of a racecar when he was running up front at plate tracks, more importantly winning.
“He’s got a year under his belt and I’m thinking he’s going to go into this year a lot more confident,” Earnhardt said of Ives. “He knows what he’s got to do, he knows what he has at his finger tips and he knows what his job is. He came in kind of mid-offseason last year, so he’s got some time with the guys this offseason to prepare us for Daytona. I look forward to being strong.”
More experience will most likely lead to better results. The 26-time race winner is still looking for his alluded first Cup championship. Driving for Hendrick Motorsports in general leads to more pressure as the organization has won 11 titles in NASCAR’s premier series.
His racecars come out of the same shop as six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, and with the fact that Ives is a former engineer on Johnson’s racecar, Chad Knaus and he have a tight relationship.
As Ives prepares for his second season of leading the No. 88 team, there is no doubt that the pressure remains intact as Earnhardt’s crew chief. If the team gets off to a slow start, the fans will start to wonder why, and ultimately question Ives’ decision-making. The good thing for “Junior Nation” is that Earnhardt has never had a better first season with another crew chief. In his rookie season he found victory lane on two occasions, but struggled with consistency. It took years before Letarte and he clicked and started winning races. It only took the first-year combination 10 races to find victory lane.
With the current Chase format, one win all but guarantees a position into the race for the championship. The No. 88 team has a total of seven wins in the last two seasons, which has allowed them to test out new engines and setups heading into the Chase since the pressure was off their shoulders after securing a victory early in the season.
Something new heading into the season is the pit crew changes at Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt is coming into a season where the majority of the road guys are newly acquainted with Ives. Change might be exactly what NASCAR’s most popular driver needs to win his first championship.
“We’re right there,” Earnhardt said. “We’re just outside of that bubble of the top-three or four. I’m just getting ready to come through it. I’m telling you man, we can do it this year.”
There is no doubt that Earnhardt is confident heading into the new season and looks forward to getting back on the racetrack. The now 41-year-old is looking to be even more consistent then he has been over the past few seasons.
In order to win it all the team will need to get all of its bad luck and misfortunes out of the way before the Chase starts. Even though the current system is more favorable if a team is to have a bad race, Earnhardt doesn’t want to rely on having to win a race, like he has the past two years at Talladega.
2016 might be the best shot Earnhardt has ever had at winning a Cup title. The driver has never been more relaxed or comfortable with his personal life and it has translated over to the race track. In order to secure a championship, happiness and avoiding the distractions is the key. He even admitted that he had wished he’d settled down earlier in his life with fiancé Amy Reimann.
The relationship between the driver and crew chief will look to increase to even a higher standard in 2016. Earnhardt’s pre-season attitude could go a long way in determining how far the team goes this year.