Dale Earnhardt Jr. poised to produce

1/7/2011 - NASCAR

Unfailingly for me, January begets the same jittery anticipation every year. I love NASCAR racing, and the imminent prospect of race cars on the track after two months of silence fires me up. I'm like a bear leaving the cave after hibernation, well-rested and hungry, and Daytona Beach is the Golden Corral buffet.

The roar of the draft is the Daytona Restrictor Plate Symphony. I cannot wait for the preseason formalities to conclude and the racing to commence.

Here's hoping the competition is as good as it was in 2010. The on-track product defines the sport and drives every facet of the industry. Here's hoping concessions are made for the greater good. Here's hoping we do everything possible to keep this big wheel rollin' …


What are your thoughts on the Hendrick crew chief changes? Is this finally going to help Junior?

-- Ray Matthews, Mobile, Ala.

This is the most asked question on Earth, Ray, and a very fair one. Initially, Rick Hendrick's decision to rearrange his motorsports chessboard shocked the world. It shouldn't have. It makes perfect sense. That's part of Hendrick's genius -- good ol' common sense and unwillingness to accept mediocrity.

Fact is, just one Hendrick team won a race in 2010 -- the No. 48. Jeff Gordon and Steve Letarte got very close on several occasions but ultimately failed. Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were competitive only sparingly.

That is unacceptable for an organization that boasts more money and deeper resources than any other, not to mention the industry's standard-setting business model. Change was necessary, and it will benefit all involved -- Earnhardt included.

For many Junior fans, it's show-me-don't-tell-me time.

I'm an optimist. Letarte is good for Junior. He may even prove to be great. They have a relationship away from work, and Letarte's demeanor meshes well with Earnhardt's. Junior needs affirmation to excel. He needs to know his team and his crew chief are fully behind him and recognize his effort.

The moment he thinks otherwise is the moment he disengages. Letarte is willing to concede pride in the name of results. We've seen that with the way he handles Gordon.

Junior will produce in 2011. I said produce, not just improve.

The sport needs that. It's unfair to Junior to say that, but it's true.
Some folks think Junior being in the same shop with Johnson will help the No. 88 improve performance. I disagree. I don't think it will have much bearing. Drivers are rarely at the shop, physically, anyway. They have little to do with how cars are built and will still sit in the same debriefing sessions on Saturday afternoons that they always do.

The shop dynamic is the one variable involved in this decision that doesn't change much.

Gordon, too, needs to win races. And with Alan Gustafson he'll have an excellent opportunity. Ask most industry insiders, and they'll tell you Gordon won the lottery in Gustafson. He is among the smartest men in the industry and an engineer by trade who minces few words. They will be a formidable pair.


Last season ended in disappointment for Denny Hamlin and his fans. I'm a huge Denny fan and hope he can come back again this year. I know he has it in him. Do you think he'll be as strong as he was last season Marty?

-- Samantha, Front Royal, Va.

He can be as strong, Samantha. But it won't be easy.

He'll contend for wins on a consistent basis again and, in turn, make a run at the title. But winning eight races again may be a stretch. It's extremely difficult to replicate that success in a series that produces so much parity. Just look at Carl Edwards. He won nine races in 2008 and was the popular choice to supplant Jimmie Johnson as champion in 2009.

He failed to win again for two years.

Excellence -- and certainly dominance -- at the Sprint Cup level is fickle. Hamlin is a talented race car driver, one who has matured dramatically as a competitor over the past two years. He grew up a lot, recognized his shortcomings professionally and personally, and has worked hard to remedy them. He became a leader, with actions and words.

But he internalizes failure. That's not easy to shake. Anyone who has a similar personality -- I do -- knows that. The first several races of 2011 are big for him. If he goes out and wins the Daytona 500 -- which is certainly possible -- or Phoenix or Vegas, or at least runs competitively in those races, he'll be fine.

Darrell Waltrip always says you have to lose a championship to win one. I don't dispute that logic, but failure impacts every person differently. Some use it as motivation. Some get buried by it.

I don't think Hamlin doubts himself. He shouldn't. He did his job well in 2010.

But to close the deal, he has to forget 2010 ever happened.


Your tweet about home improvement was HILARIOUS! You don't get along with the honey-do list, huh?

-- Heather Dodson, Flint, Mich.

Not so much, Heather. Like I said on Twitter: Me and home improvement go together like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick at Homestead.

It's true. I try like hell to fix things around the house, but truth be told my handiness extends only as far as the index finger that dials the handyman's number.

I hung a chandelier last winter. You would have thought I won the Super Bowl. I was high-fiving my son and hollering like a hyena. Sad.


Please tell me somebody is going to beat Jimmie [Johnson] this year! PLEASE!

--Jessica Granby in Junior Nation

I'd tell you that, Jessica, but I don't want to lie to you.

Until Joe Gibbs hires Tonya Harding to crew chief the No. 11, Johnson is the favorite.


Who's this year's fantasy dark horse? I want to get a guy no one else sees coming on the cheap before the season starts.

-- William Ramirez, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Brad Keselowski is your man, William. Granted, in 2009 my answer to this question was David Reutimann. Last year it was Martin Truex Jr. So take it for what it's worth, but I predict great things in 2011 for Keselowski in the Penske Blue Deuce. He's fresh off the Nationwide Series championship, and the crew chief who led him there, Paul Wolfe, was promoted to Cup with him. They have tremendous chemistry. Wolfe is the next big star on the pit box, so Keselowski is the steal of the draft, so to speak.


It's obvious you're a big music fan. I heard Ryan Newman has a label. Is that true?

-- Sean Mitchum, Nashville, Tenn.

It is. Newman and his wife, Krissie, joined Music Row publisher Carolyn Miller to form Root 49 Records. Their first artist, Bridgette Tatum, didn't take long to make a splash. She co-wrote "She's Country," the single Jason Aldean recorded and sent to No. 1 on the country charts.

Edwards also has a record label, Back 40 Records. He's rather musically inclined, too. In November he joined the Zac Brown Band on stage in Miami Beach and played guitar during "Chicken Fried."


What did Santa bring you for Christmas?

-- Ed Hafferty, Grand Junction, Colo.

Egg Bake. A home-cooked turkey. A pair of sweatpants. Gov. Ed Rendell and The Wussification of America. A Polar Fitness watch. Family Feud for Wii. Sweet potatoes. Two feet of snow. Two very happy children.
Speaking of those happy children, it's time to pile them into the truck and head south for one last preseason hurrah to Disney World.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.