Junior's confidence is rising
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- You can learn a lot about where a team is mentally by listening to the radio communication between driver and crew chief at the end of a race.
Take Dale Earnhardt Jr., for example.
He was apologizing to crew chief Steve Letarte and the rest of his No. 88 team for a pit road speeding penalty as soon he crossed the finish line 11th in Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"We were better than them guys [directly] in front of us," Earnhardt said. "Sorry I f----- up there on pit road. I apologize for that."
A year ago, Earnhardt was fuming after rebounding from the same penalty to finish seventh. He literally had a meltdown because then-crew chief Lance McGrew said "don't lay down on me, bud" after the penalty, in Earnhardt's mind suggesting he wasn't motivated or focused enough.
Earnhardt went on to finish 21st in points, forcing team owner Rick Hendrick to shake up his organization with musical chairs among his three crew chiefs outside of five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
"Last year was a hard time," Earnhardt said as he sat on the back of his hauler Sunday. "Last year, I was going through some rough stuff, man. With this program, attitude is a lot easier."
"Mentally, it was a hard time, trying to understand how to accept not being competitive at all," Earnhardt said.
Although he's ninth in points compared with eighth after leaving this majestic valley in the Tennessee hills a year ago, Earnhardt is in a much better place. You can hear it in his voice and can see it in his face.
You could tell the same thing by listening to Carl Edwards after he finished second to Kyle Busch. He was much more upbeat than he was a year ago when he finished sixth because then he was in the midst of a losing streak that eventually would grow to 70 races.
Although he never sank to the low point Earnhardt did, Edwards experienced the same frustration of believing he had the talent to be competitive but just couldn't make it happen.
"It's very difficult," Edwards said. "All of us get here by performing well and getting great results. We're used to running well. We're used to getting the results we want. The problem is, when you start to not get the results, you have to make sure that you still give your best performance.
"They're two completely different things, so it's very difficult for me to do a worse job because I'm trying too hard, I guess."
Looking back, Edwards wishes he could write a letter to himself and send it back eight months.
"I'd say, 'Man, just keep doing what you're doing, everything is fine,' " said Edwards, who moved within one point of Kurt Busch in the standings. "But at the time, you just want to explode you're so frustrated."
Earnhardt is getting to the point where he understands how to handle that frustration. If he could write himself a letter he might say some of the same things Edwards suggested.
He might also write, "Mr. Hendrick, why didn't you pair me with Letarte two years ago?"
Yes, that relationship is a big reason for the changed attitude. When you have two people who work well together and understand each other it makes trying times easier.
Take Jeff Burton, for example.
If he and crew chief Todd Berrier didn't get along so well, they might be at each other's throats after starting the season with four finishes of 20th or worse that have the Richard Childress Racing team 29th in points.
You could hear that as Burton crossed the finish line and Berrier said, "Thanks for hanging in there."
"Jeff, he's such a freaking professional," said Berrier after a day in which the ignition switch failed early and the alternator broke late. "Honestly, it makes me feel that much worse about things that are going on, because the way he handles things is unbelievable."
Earnhardt and Letarte have reached that place fast. You could hear it early on Sunday after Earnhardt went a lap down with a car he couldn't get through the corners after extensive changes were made to the setup following Saturday's final practice.
Let's listen in on a few conversations:
"I'm worried about this car," Earnhardt said.
"I'm with you," Letarte said. "We're going to have to take this step by step. The big thing is to get the car back under you. I'm with you, though."
A few minutes later Letarte radioed, "Keep doing the best you can. Get some water. You're driving harder than you need to be."
After a pit road speeding penalty on lap 430 of the 500-lap event dropped him from the top 10 to 17th, Earnhardt calmly said, "I came in like everybody else, but we're all pushing pretty hard here."
Said Letarte, "You've done a good job of keeping us in this thing. I didn't give you a very good piece to start."
Letarte never let Earnhardt sink into that dark spot that haunted NASCAR's most popular driver throughout the past two seasons. It's why Junior Nation should be optimistic better things are ahead.
Hendrick certainly is.
"It's not just communication," he said. "Dale is spending so much time with Stevie. They are going through different philosophies of things that should happen. He's in the truck all the time, in there with the guys. I've never had anybody putting forth more effort than he's putting forth."
This team has done amazing. Every week we've gotten better during the race. I can't ask for more than that. I'm proud of the opportunity to run with this group.” -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There was a time a few years ago when Hendrick spent more time than he wanted listening to Earnhardt on the radio, particularly when Tony Eury Jr. was the crew chief, trying to figure out why they weren't able to consistently communicate well enough to improve the car.
He could have been given an honorary doctorate in psychology for all he dealt with.
But Hendrick likes what he's hearing now.
"When you talk about communication you think about what your guy is thinking about even before it comes up," Hendrick said. "That's what I like about [Earnhardt and Letarte] now."
Letarte says it's because he and Earnhardt are so similar, which is becoming more apparent every weekend.
"You have to ask my guys, but I get a lot of eye rolls because me and Junior are so much alike," Letarte said with a laugh.
Yes, you can learn a lot listening to a driver and crew chief at the end of the race. What we learned on Sunday is that Edwards believes he is on a championship run, Burton isn't giving up on making the Chase and Earnhardt is in the best place mentally he's been in a long time.
"This team has done amazing," Earnhardt said. "Every week we've gotten better during the race. I can't ask for more than that. I'm proud of the opportunity to run with this group. I run pretty good here. I was thinking we might get a top-5.
"I don't know. The car just didn't work on the corner very good. Made a good day out of nothing, I guess."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.