It would be a nice cap to an emotional week for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
USA TODAY Sports
RICHMOND, Va. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew that his crew chief was gone after the 2014 season. He and Steve Letarte went out, had some fun, won their only Daytona 500 together – Earnhardt’s second – qualified for the playoffs and otherwise raced with the freedom that comes with an expiration date.
There was no need to be timid.
There was a lesson in that season for Earnhardt, as he enters the final 28 races of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career. After 18 full seasons understanding, if not reacting to the pressure of his many fans, the 42-year-old is ready for one more care-free campaign. Earnhardt announced Tuesday that he was retiring from the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet at the end of this season.
“The team, the guys, they all and myself we would love to win some races. I’m going to say a race, but some races would be great going out in your last season to get some victories,” Earnhardt said at Richmond International Raceway this weekend. “We just want to go to victory lane one more time just to get that experience one more time would be awesome for me and I think the guys would love it for sure. But, I certainly did feel a lot more relaxed now.
“I don’t know whether it’s because I finally got to tell everybody and let everybody know what we are doing, get that over with.”
Not racing like he was trying to get the 2014 season over with and assume his analyst role for NBC Sports helped Letarte guide Earnhardt to win four races and an eighth-place points finish. They’d been winless but finished fifth in the standings in 2013.
“He called that whole season completely different,” Earnhardt said. “He was more aggressive and I think it was because he had the freedom to be that way. He was like ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ and a lot of times it ended up working out.
“We won both of those Pocono races on pit calls that he made. We didn’t just out-run everybody. There are things he did in the middle of the race that we might not have done had he not had his mind made up what he was doing and, ‘Hey this is my last hooray, we-are-going-to-go-for-it-kind of attitude.
“I noticed that whole year he was a much easier going, approachable, I mean he’s pretty damn likable, but he was much more likable and easier to be around. Everything rolled off his back, we didn’t get frustrated as easily and I am anticipating that being similar for me.”
Not that he’ll be able to immediately trip some figurative pressure valve. Earnhardt admitted he had to help his crew clean the pit area this week because he was too “mouthy and frustrated on the radio.”
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PHOTOS: BEHIND THE WHEEL WITH DALE EARNHARDT JR.