HARRISBURG, N.C. -- For NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, validation of a gutsy hunch came in the form of a pedestrian family outing.
"When I saw Dale Earnhardt [Jr.] getting in a car with Steve Letarte and his kids, going to the mall, I said, 'You've got him. This is it,'" Hendrick chuckled. "Dale wants to be comfortable. He wants to respect the guy and he wants the guy to respect him. Period."
Truth told, Earnhardt's respect for Letarte may have saved his career -- or at least his career's respectability. On the strength of Letarte's dependability, patience and gregarious nature, their relationship built quickly. With respect came trust.
"Sometimes you can tell him you have his best interests at heart, you can tell him this is the best thing for him," Hendrick continued. "But until he believes and he sees it, he feels it doesn't do him any good. He has to believe."
Earnhardt believes in Letarte. The relationship is comforting. Any concerns he may have had in the past about his ability were vanquished in 2011, based largely on that trust in Letarte. It was an emotional transformation. With it, Earnhardt's confidence soared.
"Dale Jr. is a remarkable talent, and I want him to know he is," Letarte said. "He has confidence. I just want to make sure I do my job and give him a good enough platform to show his confidence. What I mean by that is, if you're a great baseball pitcher, and you know you're a great baseball pitcher, but you make errors in the field and you can't hit, you're job just got way harder.
"Now, you still have confidence. You believe in yourself. But you've been put in a very tough situation. My goal is to make sure I put him in the best situation possible."
The breakthrough began at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last March, when Letarte fielded a fast, comfortable No. 88 Chevrolet for Earnhardt.
"That's when I kind of had the idea that this guy was a good crew chief, and was going to give me good cars and I could count on him and depend on him," Earnhardt said. "My confidence has gotten better this year. Definitely."
Earnhardt's teammate, Jeff Gordon, has first-hand knowledge of how Letarte's approach can impact a driver's confidence and, in turn, his performance. Gordon was paired with Letarte for 200 races between September 2005 and November 2010, just prior to Hendrick's preseason 2011 decision to shake up his lineup.
"I don't know that Junior needed some major improvement," Gordon said. "It's the combination: having a good leader that understands what your needs are as a driver, that listens to you and believes in you, that helps you with that feedback and gives you good race cars.
"I don't see where he changed a whole lot of what he was doing. I think it was just that they clicked. I think he saw that he had a guy that believed in his abilities. That confidence is huge. Confidence is where he improved. He seemed to express a little more confidence. And it built as the year went on."
That confidence helped produce a resurgent season. There were no victories, but there were close calls and a Chase spot for the first time since his first season at Hendrick, 2008.
But more importantly, there was hope.
"Dale is a good friend, and has been a good friend, and I've been a little bit of a mentor to him and his sister," Hendrick said. "So I've been dealing with them, not working for me but in life. And I care about him.
"Everybody that's tried to help him did what they could. But Stevie went at it a different way, and it's what Dale respects. Instead of, after the race when everybody's pissed off and runs different ways, Steve puts his arm around Dale and they go up in the truck and talk, or ride home together. Stevie's always thinking about 'How can I make this deal better?' Dale noticed that and it put so much confidence in him."
Hendrick's November 2010 decision to put the two together raised eyebrows throughout the industry. Many pondered whether it would work -- Letarte included. When Hendrick told him the news, "he was in shock," Hendrick said. Letarte processed the news for about an hour, then hopped in the truck and drove to Earnhardt's house. That's where the relationship began.
"If you stop and think about it, the pressure on Steve Letarte and Dale Jr. last year could not have been any more," Hendrick said. "I get the credit now, but I don't deserve the credit. They deserve the credit."
Earnhardt's greatest improvement as a driver in 2011 was information feedback about the race car. His words became more precise, more particular regarding how his car reacted to certain adjustments at certain times, and what he felt he needed to make the car perform better.
"In the past I would get frustrated and my comments would be broad and generic, and not assisting anyone in any real manner," Earnhardt said. "I'm a lot more specific, like, 'Hey, this is the problem. This is where I think it lies. I'll let you think about that and work on it, and I expect that you'll fix it.' It's been good."
Letarte noticed another critical area of improvement.
"Patience," he said. "He's a remarkable race car driver. I don't think he became a better race car driver in terms of talent or car feel. He did a remarkable job all season of being patient when we didn't have a car good enough to win.
If you stop and think about it, the pressure on Steve Letarte and Dale Jr. last year could not have been any more. I get the credit now, but I don't deserve the credit. They deserve the credit.
”-- Rick Hendrick
"He was patient when we didn't have the best car in practice. He was extremely patient with me working through how to make it better, and his patience made us a better race team and me a better crew chief."
Letarte pointed to the fall event at Charlotte as an example. Earnhardt was impatient with the crew at the beginning of the race, but then, Letarte said, he took a moment to recalibrate his mind, slow down and assess how to improve to achieve a respectable finish.
"I didn't say that to him. He said that," Letarte recalled. "That's an example of a guy figuring out where he was at in a situation and making great corrections."
He finished 19th that night in Charlotte. In the past he may not have finished at all.
"He improved the most at relaying information back to the crew chief, and not getting frustrated -- and not giving up," Hendrick said. "A lot of that is confidence that the [crew chief] is going to help you. Just let him help you. He'd been through a lot of change and there's a lot of pressure on him."
There is the sense around the Hendrick organization that Earnhardt wants to win as badly for Letarte as he does for himself. There is the sense that he doesn't want to be the weak link. There is proof that he is trying. He has worked consistently to get himself in shape for the first time in his adult life. He figures he hasn't been this fit since high school. He is engaged in the company, confirming his belief in the system and the people.
Asked in mid-January where he felt deficient as a driver, Earnhardt said he had no particular deficiencies. Asked the same question about Junior, Hendrick paused.
"We have kickoff lunches and quarterly lunches for our employees, and he has the best attendance record of any driver I got," Hendrick laughed. "He gets the golden star. My point is he's fitting in and enjoying it."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.