Why is Dale Jr. so thrilled with new crew chief Greg Ives?
Set to embark on his first season with crew chief Greg Ives atop the No. 88 pit box after spending the past four years with Steve Letarte, Dale Earnhardt Jr. anticipates a short adjustment period for he and Ives to get on the same page with their terminology regarding changes to the car and how it is handling.
But even before that happens — and Earnhardt guarantees it will — NASCAR's most popular driver is convinced he is paired with a guy who not only will continue the success he started with Letarte, but also actually build even faster race cars.
Why is Junior so pumped to have Ives in his corner?
In addition to bringing a stellar resume that includes guiding rookie Chase Elliott to the 2014 Xfinity Series title and serving as lead engineer on the No. 48 team for Jimmie Johnson's first five Sprint Cup titles, Ives carries an engineering pedigree that Letarte lacked.
It's no surprise, then, that the 35-year-old Ives also has already proven himself to be a stickler for details.
"I asked him about the Daytona car and some of the things he's working on and he ran down this list of about 50 things — just the most particular, peculiar, tiny things that he's concerned with. And when you ask him something, he's going to give you the full rundown," Earnhardt said during last week's Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. "The other day we were working on a photo shoot for Nationwide and the show car they had out there was a little too high for my liking for the shot they were getting, so me and Greg worked on the show car sitting on pit road to get it down on the ground so they could take a picture of a car that looks more realistic. While we were doing that, Greg made a list of about 25 other things wrong with the show car, and gave it to the guy that's in control of the show car program.
"I mean, he's a details guy, and that's been really entertaining for me, and you know that's going to be a positive going into the relationship that he's that particular. You want a guy who's a perfectionist."
As far as Ives is concerned, there's no other way to be.
"I've learned that that makes a difference," he said. "NASCAR has a great rein on all the competition with their rules package and how they inspect our cars. If you're not meticulous, you're not going to find that speed or have that. I don't know what it is. It's just something that I know that if I don't do it, I won't be successful, and in the end that's what you have to do to beat the guy next to me."
Just how meticulous is Earnhardt's new pit boss? One of the 50 items on Ives' Daytona checklist was getting the No. 88 car's roof hatch completely reengineered to conform more closely to his driver's liking. Not that Earnhardt Jr. was surprised by this. Regan Smith, who worked with Ives in 2013 at JR Motorsports, had already given his boss a sneak preview of what to expect with Ives as a crew chief.
"It's just little tiny things like that that don't really, really matter, but it's what made me more comfortable and it makes him more comfortable," Earnhardt said of the roof hatch. "Even if it's not a performance thing, he just covers every single little base. If he sees something he doesn't like, he gets somebody on top of that job and somebody working hard. I knew he was a details guy; Regan had told me that over and over and over. Regan was so impressed when he worked with him, and told me I was just going to love it, and I'm already seeing that and we haven't even got to the racetrack yet."
If there's one concern about the Earnhardt-Ives pairing, it's that Ives, who tends to be all business and fairly low-key in his approach, brings a much different personality to the job than his predecessor, the ultra-gregarious Letarte, who is widely credited with resurrecting Earnhardt's career.
"Greg is truthfully opposite of Steve Letarte," said Johnson, whose No. 48 team shares a shop with Earnhardt's team. "Steve was always chatting away and what was in his mind came right on out. He was very focused on the energy of his people, the camaraderie on the team, having fun, very outward. Greg is much different. He's a details guy, an engineer. It's going to be a change for Junior and for that team.
"But Junior, I think, has great talent and great ability, and I don't think it's going to be a big difference for him. From the racing standpoint, it's so tough to be competitive, and I think what Greg brings is a fresh set of eyes, a little bit of an environment change. It's going to be good for the shop, and it's going to help distribute the workload to others, so I think we're going to be a stronger team as a result."
When Letarte became Earnhardt's crew chief in 2011, Earnhardt was coming off of two of his worst seasons in the sport when he failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup or win a race. But over four years with Letarte, Earnhardt won five races and never missed the Chase.
Much of the credit went to the crew chief, whose cheerleader-style of conversing with his driver over the in-car radio proved to be just what Earnhardt needed at the time.
So, is the Hendrick Motorsports driver worried that the stark difference in personality between Ives and Letarte could hamper communication?
"I'm going to try to teach him how to cheerlead a little bit," Earnhardt said. "I'll cheerlead and see if he kind of follows my lead, but he's got a very good positive attitude. He's got a good sense of humor. The cheerleading part was good for me at that point in my career, and as I worked with Steve I matured and became less reliant on that reinforcement from him. The cheerleading was more about my self-esteem, my confidence, and I think that he helped me rebuild all that, and maybe we won't need to be so reliant on that from Greg. Maybe I'm mature enough as a 40-year-old to act like a man and be a professional inside the car and not have to depend on Greg to boost me up.
"It's awesome to hear you're doing a good job, it's great to get a pat on the back from the guys you're working with, and I'm sure he's as good at that as anybody, but I'll be real self-conscious to not put the onus on Greg and say, 'Man, I'm beat down. You're going to have to inflate me back up and get me excited and hopeful.' I've got to be responsible for that myself as an adult."
Ives, a native of Bark River, Michigan, isn't reluctant to be filling the shoes of a guy who in many ways was his polar opposite.
"I have the ability to adapt to who I need to adapt to in that situation," Ives said. "If at the times when Dale is running well and he doesn't need a cheerleader, then I'm not going to be one," Ives said. "If there's times when I need to make him feel empowered in that race car and make feel like he has the ability to perform, then I'm going to be that cheerleader, so you say. But I'm just going to do it in a different way.
"I'm not going to tell him he looks cute or has nice eyes or anything, or is talented or this or that; I'm going to do it with facts. He's able to figure it out and he's got the experience and the talent to make it happen. My cheerleading style may be different. I may obviously do things a little bit different. I would say that's definitely not my forte, but I definitely know I can do it."
Earnhardt, for his part, has the utmost confidence that Ives is more than up for the task. It also doesn't hurt that Ives received a glowing recommendation from his predecessor.
"Greg's name came up as a possibility to be able to work with us, and Steve said, 'That's the top guy. If he's available, he's at the top of the list,'" Earnhardt said. "And he's an engineer, you know. Having that engineering background as a crew chief's going to be really crucial. Greg is one of the top five, if not the best, engineer in the garage, and Kevin Meendering — the guy I got to keep as my lead engineer from the last four years that knows me really well and what I like and don't like in the car — he's still on board. And I think he's one of the top five engineers. So I've got this combo of engineers that I think really sets me apart from every other team in the garage."