A pair of athletes will significantly influence the sports viewing landscape this weekend - Tiger Woods and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Although neither have been particularly competitive in recent times, both names are still incredibly huge in their respective sports and each transcends their arena to mainstream fans and media.
So just as if golf will prosper if Woods becomes a factor in the sport’s most prestigious event at The Masters, Earnhardt’s performance in Saturday night’s stop at Texas Motor Speedway will surely impact NASCAR’s exposure.
You need to look no further than last week’s race in Martinsville to gauge whether or not Earnhardt is still popular or relevant. Despite not winning a race in nearly three years over the span of 98 races, when Earnhardt took the lead late in the race the packed grandstands erupted in a roar that thundered through the nearby Virginia mountains.
While ten other drivers also were in front at some point in Sunday’s 500-lap race, none elicited the kind of response Earnhardt did when he went to the lead.
FOX reports an overall television rating of 3.9/9 share for the race, down a bit from a comparable Martinsville event two years ago. But that number jumped to an eleven share of households watching the race when Earnhardt muscled around Kyle Busch and appeared on his way to victory lane.
Whether you like it or not the sport’s perennial Most Popular Driver is still the name that creates the most interest and can help bring the sport back from a couple years of mediocrity in the popularity department.
At least early on the science experiment by team owner Rick Hendrick to mix and match the driver and crew chief lineup sans Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus is paying dividends.
Jeff Gordon ended his long winless drought with a victory at Phoenix with new chief Alan Gustafson calling the shots. Mark Martin has regained the consistency that eluded him last year in his new pairing with Lance McGrew.
But maybe the most dramatic results have been the marriage between Earnhardt and Steve Letarte.
The cheering and motivating style of Letarte at first seemed a glaring contrast to be paired with the sometimes quiet and pensive Earnhardt.
“He’s a bit of a motor boat,” Earnhardt said when asked early on about his new relationship with Letarte.
However now with an off-season of planning, pre-season testing and six races under their belts, the Letarte-Earnhardt combo has been nothing short of impressive.
He was in the mix to win the Daytona 500 until a cut tire ended that quest and relegated Earnhardt to a 24th place finish. But since then it’s been a strong of solid runs that came to a crescendo at Martinsville when the No. 88 team’s effort ended in a runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt’s best effort since New Hampshire back last September.
"My biggest problem is my confidence," said Earnhardt, who frankly didn’t convey any over his first three years as a member of Hendrick Motorsports. "I know that I've outran and beat these guys that I compete with each week before, and I just have to remember that the potential is there. I believe in myself, but there's a swagger that you have to have."
That’s where Letarte comes in.
Almost immediately Letarte worked to build his driver’s confidence level and mental state before the two ever got to the racetrack.
“I felt it was important to build a relationship together on and off the track,” Letarte said. “We’ve known each other for a while but it’s a lot different when you work together as closely as we are now as crew chief and driver. The gain that trust, to help that psyche to me those first steps were important for us to become friends and we have. I think you’re seeing some of that translate to how we’re running on the race track.”
That same philosophy was evident in Letarte’s previous relationship with Gordon and although they weren’t able to get to victory lane together the bond between the two was credited for the several solid runs they enjoyed.
"It helps me so much to have him pushing me," Earnhardt said. "This is one race out of a long, long season, but this is the first time in a long time that I didn't feel like I was out on an island, you know, out there by myself.
"It's almost like he's riding in the car with you, punching you in the shoulder …. 'Come on, don't overdrive it. Dig! Dig!' I appreciate that. It makes me want to work."
Communication is a two way street and Letarte thinks Earnhardt has gotten much better at providing him with the information necessary to make the car better, an element that seemed to be lacking in previous crew chief relationships.
"When it comes to driver-crew chief feedback, my theories are it's my responsibility to lead him down the right path and ask the right questions because he's distracted, he's driving, he's busy," Letarte said. "It's his responsibility to answer the questions the best to his ability and if that's an 'I don't know' that's what I need, and he does a very good job of that."
So in a relatively short period of time Earnhardt has gone from also-ran to a driver that can legitimately contend for wins, and yes that’s plural.
In fact I see the winless drought ending in the next trio of April races beginning with Saturday night’s Texas visit with Talladega and Richmond left on the schedule this month. All are tracks where Earnhardt has enjoyed past success and all are places where there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t have a solid chance at taking the checkered flag.
NASCAR is a better place when Earnhardt is a factor. While I won’t go so far as to say the sport needs him to win, it sure would be a shot in the arm if and when he does.
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