Originally posted on FOX Sports  |  Last updated 9/12/12
Team building has been at the core of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s success this season. On Sunday, Earnhardt Jr. celebrated his second consecutive Chase for the Sprint Cup berth with his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports squad at the home of crew chief Steve Letarte. While Junior likely focused more on the Washington Redskins game than frolicking by the pool at Chez Letarte, the activity didn't matter. The ability for this group to perform as one unit on and off the track -- as it has all season and will need to during the next 10 weeks -- will be critical to Earnhardt's championship quest. Since Letarte took command of the No. 88 team at the end of 2010, the changes have been few. His focus has been developing an environment where Earnhardt could thrive. And Letarte's leadership has paid off. "Steve is always looking at ways to improve the team," Earnhardt said. "I think he has. Anytime he's put the effort in to improve the team he has, and things have gotten better. "The last couple of years have been pretty comfortable for me and not a lot of shake up. We've been able to put ourselves into a groove and build some momentum." No doubt this year has been a game changer for Junior when it comes to confidence and consistency. In June, Earnhardt won his first race in four years. He and teammate Jimmie Johnson lead the series with 17 top-10 finishes in the first 26 races. And although Earnhardt was shuffled to seventh-place once the point standings were recalculated to include wins, he led the standings twice during the regular season and was never worse than fifth in points. Still, Letarte is worried about the wins that got away and how the extra points could have solidified their position. When the team chose the safe route in the June Pocono race and opted to pit for fuel, that decision could have placed a wedge between some drivers and crew chiefs. Yet with the solidarity that has been established with No. 88, the team soldiered back the following week and won at Michigan. "I think we lost two or three races we could have won," Letarte said on Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio. "The first Pocono, we took the conservative route and pit for fuel. I don't think that's an option in the Chase. We have to race these 10 races to win a championship, not to not lose one. "We raced this summer not to miss the Chase. We had a great start to the year. Last summer was very disappointing for us. We put the walls up a little bit. But I'm proud to say we've communicated as a team -- Dale and I were on the same page. Even though the world might have disagreed that day at Pocono, it didn't matter. Dale and I didn't disagree. And that's the key." Letarte feels that "as long as Dale Junior and I are on the same page, which I know we are" the pair and the team can overcome the obstacles that lie ahead. For Earnhardt, however, that key might continue to be the conservative approach that the team relied on earlier in the season. Although his faith in Letarte is solid, Earnhardt acknowledges that some of the risks the team made once they were safely in the top 10, "didn't pay off." "Someone told me the other day our season was consistent up to a point," Earnhardt said. "That's why I don't like to gamble and lose because we're a good race team all the way to the Chase, but we don't get credit for it. Once we knew we were in the Chase and started gambling and then we're not a consistent team anymore when I think we're one of the more consistent teams in the garage. "You have to be smart. You have to use your head, and I think Steve will make all the right calls we need to make. I have full trust in him to call the race. He uses great strategy and always seems to pull out a few positions for us in his strategy alone." Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon has firsthand knowledge of Letarte's potential. As Gordon's longtime car chief and then crew chief starting with the Chase races in 2005, the pair relied on each other tremendously. Under the guidance of Letarte, Gordon believes 2012 "is the first real legitimate shot" that Earnhardt has had since he won six races during the 2004 season. "Junior has had a real solid year," Gordon said. "He's stepped it up to levels that people didn't expect and it's great. "I give Steve a lot of credit. I feel like how he's handled Dale Jr. and has built his confidence up, given him good race cars -- the whole team. That was a tall task for him. There was a lot of pressure. Prior to that, they hadn't been that competitive -- meaning the team that Junior was with -- and to make the switch and be as competitive as they have, has been great." Earnhardt credits Letarte as well. He believes his crew chief has helped him "become a better driver." "He's shown me how I can be a better asset to the team inside of the car and outside of the car. I think he's improved me in a lot of areas. "So, you know, that feels good. We work real hard to improve certain areas of the deal and he tells me what he thinks I need to be doing, how I can help. I do those things, we see the results. It's pretty neat." Although Earnhardt might be a little skittish about taking chances in the final 10 races, Letarte feels both he and the driver need to be "maybe 5 percent more aggressive." He doesn't want to spend the offseason regretting any opportunity the team left behind. "You can't come home from races thinking, 'Man, we could have won that one,'" Letarte said. "You need to come home from races saying, 'We had a shot and we won that one.' That's why everyone loves playoff sports. Talk's cheap. It's not the regular season, it's not 26 weeks, it's 10 weeks. And five times over these 10 weeks, someone is going to throw you the ball. And if you can catch the ball and run it in for a touchdown, you can be a champion." Entering the Chase, Earnhardt believes he has as good of a shot as anyone to win the championship. Although the No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. car was capable of winning the title in 2004, at 37 Junior knows, "I'm a smarter driver". "I think back how we won those Nationwide Series championships (1998-'99) and I didn't know how to win a championship, I didn't know to race for a championship," Earnhardt said. "We just went out and ran as hard as we could and got a big enough lead to lock it up early. So I thought at that time I knew how to win championships, but I didn't. "It's taken a lot of mistakes to get smarter. I feel like if I do what I need to do on the racetrack myself and (have no) mistakes, I'll put myself in a good place to win this one."
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