15-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has struggled in 2016 compared to recent seasons. But after a second-place finish at Pocono Raceway, he is attempting to turn the No. 88 team in the right direction.
Through 15 races this season, the No. 88 team has four second-place finishes, but a disappointing six top-10 efforts. In the same amount of time last season, Earnhardt had eight top 10s en route to tying a career-high 22 top-10 finishes.
Most recently, Earnhardt is coming off a 39th-place finish in Michigan, after getting caught up in a wreck with Chris Buescher and AJ Allmendinger.
Earnhardt and Ives combined for three victories in 2015 and by this point had already solidified themselves into the Chase with a win at Talladega. Currently, the team is sitting 30 points above the Chase cutoff in the 11th position.
“We started the year out great,” Earnhardt told Speedway Digest regarding his season. “We were running really well and got a couple of second-place finishes, and it looked like we were on the brink of winning. This past month [May leading into June] has been kind of rough, but we will get it figured out.”
Speed is a large part of the issue for the No. 88 car, according to Earnhardt. He had no top-10 finishes in the month of May runs at some of his best tracks, including Talladega, where he has been victorious six times. He has also had respectable runs at Kansas, Dover and Charlotte since he started working with Steve Letarte in 2011.
His best finish over the course of those four races was 14th at Charlotte despite have a third-place effort in the Sprint All-Star Race while utilizing a possible aero package for 2017.
Earnhardt has been out front for 53 laps this season, leading laps in three of the 14 races, including the season-opening Daytona 500, the fourth race of the year at Phoenix and most recently at Pocono.
A beat of the upcoming racetracks on the schedule is where the No. 88 team has excelled in previous seasons. Earnhardt has multiple victories at Pocono, Michigan and Daytona. He is the defending winner of the July race at Daytona and swept the two Pocono events in 2014. In 2012, he put an end to a 143-race winless streak at Michigan.
“I think that we would like to gain some speed,” Earnhardt said. “There are some tracks coming up that I think we could run really well at, Pocono is one of them, Michigan, New Hampshire. There are some tracks coming up that we feel like we can improve, learn and get some good information.”
Back when Letarte first took over as crew chief for Earnhardt, it took the duo about a year and a half to settle in.
Over the next few weeks, the team is approaching the year and a half mark with Ives but overall, the statistics are stronger with Ives atop the pit box.
In 50 races with Ives as crew chief, the duo has earned three victories, with 21 top-five finishes. In that same time span with Letarte, Earnhardt was winless, with nine top fives.
“I think the crew chief is the leader,” Earnhardt stated. “He’s with the guys every day in the shop and at the racetrack. I lean on Greg to sort of be the leader and get these guys fired up.
“I think he does a good job and we had a great year last year and started this year very good. We’ve had a little bit of a rough patch here, but you’re going to have some adversity and you’ll have to deal with that from time-to-time. I feel like he does a good job. As a member of the team, you don’t want to be a part of the problem, you want to be a part of the solution. You just have to try and keep everybody’s morale up and try not to make a bad situation worse.”
Looking at Hendrick Motorsports as a whole in 2016, rookie Chase Elliott leads the team with 11 top-10 finishes. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to pull into Victory Lane, doing it twice at Atlanta and Fontana.
“When you work with a different guy you learn what works for him and try to communicate with him,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not too challenging and it’s not extremely different than working with Steve. When you are hitting on all cylinders and you are running well, things come a lot easier.”
It is an open door policy at HMS. When a driver needs help on race setup or even qualifying trim, the other teammates are there to help each other. The crew chiefs work closely together, though, the race team is split up into two shops on the team’s campus in Concord, N.C. In one shop, it’s the Nos. 48 team and No. 88 teams, with the other shop made up of the No. 5 team of Kasey Kahne and the No. 24 car.
Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt and Johnson have worked extremely well together, according to Earnhardt. They are the two elder statesmen as of now on the winningest team in NASCAR history. Both drivers want to improve on that.
One thing that Earnhardt has been very critical of this year is the way the team is qualifying. The No. 88 Chevrolet has started outside of the top 20 nine times in 2016. Throughout the entire 36-race season last year, he started outside of the top 20 eight times.
“It makes racing difficult because you have to find a way to get to the front,” he said. “At times, it’s a lot fun to try and get to the front, but you certainly would like to make it easier on yourself with qualifying better. It’s been a big challenge trying to find the right balance for us and get speed. “
Though Earnhardt has six solid finishes this season, the first stint of the race seems to be about rebounding for the team, attempting to drive the car halfway through the field.
But the qualifying efforts have surprised Earnhardt for that reason.
The car has raced well all season. Through some bad luck and unfortunate circumstances, he has three DNF’s, two coming at Daytona and Talladega, his two best racetracks with a combined 10 wins.
“We always end up being one of the top five cars in lap times during the race,” Earnhardt elaborated. “We’re one of the fastest cars in the race, we just can’t do it in qualifying.”
This is Earnhardt’s 18th season in the Cup Series, making him one of the longest tenured drivers in the sport’s top series. Matt Kenseth and he have the longest streak of full-time seasons.
Earnhardt, 41, owns JR Motorsports, a NASCAR XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series team. There is always the option after to race back down into the lower divisions of NASCAR, but admittedly so, he doesn’t want to race as long as his father did.
“I want to run in the XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports as long as it helps the company,” Earnhardt said of his organization. “I think it would be racing a late model race here and there with the late model program. That’s reasonably affordable and would probably enjoy doing on and off into my 50s and 60s if that’s what you wish.”
2017 is a contract year for Earnhardt after previously signing a deal in 2011 to stick around with HMS. However, his future is still up in the air with no extension signed as of mid-2016.
Earnhardt would like to finish his Cup Series career with Hendrick Motorsports, which he has called home for the past eight years.
“It’s great to have it all wrapped up so quickly and far in advance,” Earnhardt said prior to his last contract “Rick [Hendrick] and I were on the same page from the first time we talked about it, so there wasn’t any sense in waiting. There were never any questions or hesitations from either of us. It was just, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
With sponsorship from Nationwide, Axalta, Mountain Dew and TaxSlayer.com, it would be hard for Earnhardt to leave Hendrick Motorsports. The companies have combined to fund his efforts for the entire year, led by Nationwide’s 21 events as a primary sponsor and 13 from Axalta after working with four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
“It’s something that we haven’t started to sit down and talk about,” Earnhardt said of his future. “We will see what Rick [Hendrick] wants to do with his direction and future is for the team. We will see if that lines up with what I want to do. I don’t think I will race as long as my dad did, but I have been having a lot of fun over the past couple of years.
“I would hate to walk away from such a good opportunity prematurely, but when it comes down to it, Rick is the boss and what is future and direction of the team is important. I’m sure we will get talking about what we want to do past this contract in the next six months.”