Junior marching to new drum beat so far

February, 11, 2011
02/11/11
4:51
PM ET

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Thirty minutes remained before Sprint Cup cars roared onto Daytona International Speedway for Friday's first official practice of 2011 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. already was hovering in the garage around his familiar No. 88 hauler and car.

He'll be there 30 minutes after practice as well.

He has no choice.

"The crew chiefs decide when practice starts and ends," says Earnhardt's crew chief, Steve Letarte. "You need to be in the truck before practice and after practice. He needs to be there. The crew chief sets the driver availability. The PR guy doesn't. The PR guy works for another company and on another schedule."

Zap!

It hasn't always been that way for Earnhardt. He typically arrived in the garage just in time to get in the car. He often left as soon as practice was over to fulfill sponsor or media obligations, or simply to get away.

But Letarte made it clear when team owner Rick Hendrick paired him with NASCAR's most popular driver during the offseason that things would be different.

"That's how Jeff did it when we were building the 24 team," said Letarte, who was Jeff Gordon's crew chief from 2005 until Hendrick shook things up after last season. "That's how Jimmie [Johnson] does it in the 48. That's how Dale Jr. will do it in the 48-88 building."

Message received. Loud and clear.

"He has a certain way that he wants things done and he requires a driver to be involved in a lot of things that I typically haven't been involved in in the past, which is good, I think," Earnhardt says with a smile. "So it will require me to be at the car 30 minutes earlier normally than I would get there.

"If it gets me out of an interview or any kind of photo shoot or whatever you may have, it's more fun being around the car, for sure."

This is one sign that Earnhardt is committed to turning around a career that has seen him fail to make the Chase the past two seasons and go winless since 2008. It's a commitment he never made with former crew chief Lance McGrew -- or really any crew chief before him.

"There's times when Dale would march to Dale's drum," McGrew says politely. "You know, Dale is a busy guy. He's got a lot going on, whether it's personal appearances or whatever. It's difficult to command, even at times when you are one-on-one."

Maybe that's why McGrew is so excited about this season with Mark Martin, who was rearranging personal appearances and commercial shoots in December to fit into his crew chief's schedule.

"Just the passion he brings to the table, the enthusiasm," McGrew said. "He's just a guy you respect. I feel very fortunate to work with him this season."

Maybe one day Letarte will say the same thing about Earnhardt.

"I take full responsibility for how I ran working with Lance," Earnhardt says. "I feel like at the time I was doing what I needed to do. But I think I'm about to enter a whole new world.

"I'm willing to do whatever they ask me to do. Hopefully, that has a direct effect on my performance."

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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