NASCAR’s perennially most popular driver turns 40 years old in October, and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions in their 40s are few and far between. Earnhardt’s father was 43 when he won his seventh and final Sprint Cup title in 1994, and the oldest champion in series history is Bobby Allison, who was 45 when he took the 1983 title.
For Earnhardt Jr., there’s an even more pressing reason for a sense of urgency: 2014 will be the fourth and final season he will have Steve Letarte as his crew chief on the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
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Given that the 2013 season was Earnhardt’s best with Hendrick to date, and given that Earnhardt would have been champion last year under the new Sprint Cup points system NASCAR has adopted for 2014, well, there’s no time like the present to make things happen.
Especially with NASCAR’s new changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which will begin with a 16-car Chase field that gets shrunk to 12 cars after three races, eight cars after six races and then four cars after nine races.
After the ninth race of the Chase at Phoenix, the top four in points will have their point totals reset so they are equal to each other. Whichever one of the top four drivers after Phoenix has the best finish in the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be the champion.
Earnhardt is on board with the new system, especially with the knockout rounds.
"There will be a bigger impact felt when a guy’s eliminated, and when you’re in that position that you’re racing to stay alive," said Earnhardt. "I think that will be a weightier situation in each particular race."
As for the winner-take-all shootout at Homestead, Earnhardt thinks it’s a game-changer.
"I think coming down to Homestead with four guys, that’s crazy, but it’s exciting, so exciting," said Earnhardt. "If I’m a fan, this is exciting. This is a bold, aggressive move and if I’m wanting to be entertained, this is going to do it."
Winning it all won’t be easy, though.
"As a driver, it’s definitely going to be more of a higher-pressure situation, and a lot tougher on some guys’ composure and psyche," said Earnhardt. "But that’s what needs to happen. I think that’s been missing. … I think it’s a step in the right direction for how our fan base has changed."
For his part, Letarte knows the team needs to win races this year if Earnhardt is to at long last capture the championship he covets.
"It’s kind of like a star quarterback," said Letarte. "There’s some great quarterbacks that have some great stats, and then there are quarterbacks that win. And we have a lot of great stats, but to consider ourselves a championship contender, my personal belief is, you must win. … there’s too many great teams not to."
And there’s the rub.
While Earnhardt won 17 races from 1999-2007 while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., he’s only won twice since joining Hendrick in 2008. That said, he had a sensational finish to 2013, with eight finishes of eighth or better in the final nine races, including runner-up runs at Dover and Texas and a third-place run at Homestead.
"We’ve been second to the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) a bunch, which is a great thing because we know what equipment is beating us," said Letarte. "It’s a frustrating thing, because you know what equipment is beating you. But, you know, it’s better to run second to the No. 48 than third to the No. 48. We’re proud of the runs we made."
Letarte said the team is working hard to make the leap from top fives to victories.
"There are a couple (races) that I thought we had a real good shot at and they didnât come to fruition. And we don’t just push those to the side. We analyze them. We look at Homestead and say, ‘Listen, why didn’t we win?’ That’s not a ‘Hey, what did you do wrong, what did I do wrong?’ It’s like, ‘What can we do better? Did I not ask the right questions in that next-to-the-last run, did we not make the right adjustments?’
"And what makes our team very special is that Dale is the first guy to say, ‘Well, I could have done this better.’ And the pit crew … everyone is willing to take responsibility to us getting better."
Earnhardt said he’s ready to win, especially with the new NASCAR Chase format.
"I feel like I am on the verge of breaking through and having possibly one of my best seasons," said Earnhardt. "Maybe it’s just the stars aligning or fate that they’re making these changes and maybe we just have the type of season we need to have to be the guy at Homestead holding the trophy."