When team owner Rick Hendrick moved crew chief Steve Letarte from Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 team before the 2011 season, the decision was widely viewed as an attempt to pair Earnhardt Jr. with a pit boss who would serve as a cheerleader of sorts.
After all, NASCAR’s most popular driver was coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons in which he missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup and failed to win a single race.
His confidence at perhaps an all-time low, Earnhardt Jr. found just what he needed in Letarte: A crew chief who would keep him pumped up and encouraged at virtually all times — even on those occasions when his car might not be to his liking.
While it took some time for the two to produce the results they wanted, Earnhardt Jr.’s performance steadily improved with Letarte atop the pit box. The chemistry Earnhardt Jr. often lacked with past crew chiefs was immediately present.
Now, in their fourth and final year together after making the Chase in each of the past three years, Earnhardt Jr. is enjoying one of his best seasons ever. And most importantly of all, his confidence in his abilities as a driver is as high it’s ever been.
So when it came time for Hendrick Motorsports to select a replacement for Letarte, who is voluntarily leaving Hendrick at season’s end to join NBC’s NASCAR broadcast booth in 2015, Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t necessarily looking for another cheerleader-type crew chief.
He merely wanted someone with a proven record of success and someone who could quickly adapt to the Hendrick way. Earnhardt Jr. believes he’s found such a person in Greg Ives, who on Wednesday was named the successor to Letarte beginning next season.
"No crew chiefs are identical, but I think the driver likes to hear positive reinforcement, and I’m sure that Greg and I will learn to sort of give and take on that," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I’m sure he wants to hear it, as well. So I think that we’ll both share a responsibility there. When I look back over the years with Steve, his cheerleading has sort of gotten less and less and less as the confidence built, and the more confident I got in what we were doing, the less cheerleading he had to do, to where it’s almost not near as repetitive as it used to be when we first started working together. I’ve gotten my mojo back, and my confidence is up there and I’ve got such good belief in my team."
Earnhardt Jr. also believes in Ives, who despite boasting no experience as a crew chief at the Sprint Cup Series level has quickly proven to be one of the most capable young tenants of the NASCAR garage. As crew chief for Chase Elliott this season at JR Motorsports — the company Earnhardt Jr. co-owns with his Cup boss, Rick Hendrick — Ives has guided the Nationwide Series rookie to Victory Lane three times and a real shot at the series title.
Before making the transition to JR Motorsports, Ives was the lead engineer on Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick team that claimed the Sprint Cup Series crown a record five consecutive years from 2006-2010.
Earnhardt Jr. likes that Ives is already well-versed in the Hendrick way, having worked directly under Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus with whom Ives will soon share space in Hendrick’s 48/88 shop that houses the cars of Johnson and Earnhardt Jr.
"I knew while he was working with Jimmie how talented he was and how he was sort of in a great position to be groomed into this role, and this is that whole cycle sort of coming to truth," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I have always admired his understanding of how a car works, and his attention to detail is very, very important, and his demeanor and personality is very easy-going and I find him a very fun guy to be around and real easy to talk to, and we’ve had a great working relationship for several years. The best part about it, though, is he knows the culture of the shop, the 48/88 shop. He knows what that shop’s about and how the work goes on in that shop, and the mentality there."
Ives — who will continue to serve as Elliott’s crew chief the rest of the year — has no reservations about teaming with Earnhardt Jr., despite the scrutiny that inevitably comes with calling the shots for NASCAR’s most popular driver.
"The way I feel about the 48/88 shop is I feel like it’s my home," said Ives, who may join Letarte atop the pit box in a few races later this year in an effort to ease the transition.
"It’s a place that I have the ability to go back to, and people understand my mentality and my work ethic, and they already know what to expect out of myself, and also the relationship I have with Chad, as well, to be able to do what it is we all are trying to do in NASCAR and that’s produce the best race cars possible and be competitive week in and week out. And to be able to do that with Dale, one of the greatest drivers that I’ll get to work with — not only from the great fan base that he has, but the talent that he shows on the racetrack — to be able to work on the cars and set them up and bring them to the racetrack and do the detail-oriented stuff that I like to do, is going to be a big deal for me."
Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt found Ives to be the clear choice among a large pool of candidates who expressed an interest in the No. 88 gig.
"Greg obviously had shown his ability working technically with Chad and the championships they attained, and as we sat down with Greg and he talked about his career aspirations, we felt like the move to JR Motorsports was the right move for him to gain the leadership capabilities that are necessary as a crew chief and to grow into that role potentially," Duchardt said. "So as the year went along and we looked at the attributes that we would want for that crew chief (with Earnhardt Jr.), there’s two key parts to that: One is the relationship with Dale, and the other is the relationship with Chad. As we sorted through that, it became more and more evident that the right person for the job was Greg."
Much like his relationship with Letarte, Earnhardt Jr.’s relationship with Ives isn’t strictly business. Neither are they strangers to one another. It seems that Earnhardt Jr. and Ives have had a few friendly battles from years gone by as members of Hendrick’s Fantasy Football League.
"When it comes to fantasy football, I’ve got a bit of a potty mouth and do a little smack-talking and I thought I was just going to grab the reins and run the league with my jaw," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Greg was winning every game, I’d won some games, but Greg was undefeated, so I was going up against him in our first battle. I think it was like Week 4, Week 5. And I predicted a guarantee to win, and he ended up destroying me not only on the gridiron or the fantasy make-believe gridiron, but on the message board, as well, so I found out I wasn’t the best smack-talker in the league. Greg was.
"So we became buddies after that and joked around and picked. That seems like such a long time ago. It’s pretty funny now that we’re going to be working together. We started off on a really odd foot — let’s say that."