Dale Earnhardt defends new crew chief

Mark Long
Associated Press

Daytona Beach, Fla. — Greg Ives plopped down in his chair, let out a sigh of relief and asked, “Am I in the Chase now?”

Not quite.

But the newest Hendrick Motorsports crew chief is off to a rousing start in his first season with NASCAR’s most popular driver and defending Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr.

With Ives tuning the No. 88 Chevrolet and calling the shots, Earnhardt won the first of two qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday and will start third in the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

It’s still way too early to assume the move will land Earnhardt in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for a fifth consecutive year or improve his chances of securing his first Cup championship. But getting off to a strong start can be pivotal for any relationship, and the driver-crew chief connection is arguably the most vital in auto racing.

“The relationship is jelling as quick as I knew it would,” said Ives, who cracked a few jokes after his first victory with Earnhardt on Thursday night. “When you bring great attitude, have some fun at the racetrack, have good finishes like, you’re going to jell pretty quickly.”

Of course, that was after two successful races at Daytona — a place where Earnhardt is always among the favorites.

The real challenge will come when they’re faced with adversity.

“I don’t think we’re even close to where we need to be,” Ives said.

“I feel like there’s areas I’m going to have to improve big time. There’s areas that Dale and I are slowly growing and continuing to make better. It’s just going to keep on flourishing from here.”

Earnhardt found consistent success alongside former crew chief Steve Letarte, who left the team at the end of last season to spend more time with his family. Letarte also took a job as a NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports.

Letarte revitalized Earnhardt’s career after two mediocre seasons at powerhouse Hendrick.

“I think change is a necessity in the sport,” Letarte said. “Greg is a very bright young mind. When they’re fast, they’re going to be crazy fast. I’ll be interested to see how they rebound through the lows. There are lows. There are always lows. … I put a lot of that on Dale. Dale puts a lot of that on himself. He’s going to have to be the guy that keeps this team motivated and sharp. I don’t question at all that Greg Ives is going to be in there sunup to sundown trying to make the cars faster. He’s making the cars faster and Dale is going to have to try to embrace the rest of the team.”

Ives is widely regarded as one of the most detail-oriented guys at Hendrick.

He cut his teeth while working under Jimmie Johnson’s longtime crew chief, Chad Knaus — arguably the most cunning and calculated guy in the NASCAR garage. Ives served as race engineer for Johnson’s run of five consecutive championships. And he guided Chase Elliott to the 2014 Xfinity Series championship at JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by Earnhardt.

While still celebrating in victory lane Thursday night, Ives turned to Earnhardt and started giving him a rundown of what they planned to do in practice Friday and today.

“I was a little nervous,” Ives said.

Earnhardt laughed it off, probably because he’s already grown accustomed to Ives’ business-like approach.

“He’s got a tough mental attitude,” said Earnhardt, who will try to become the first driver since Sterling Marlin in 1995 to win consecutive Daytona 500s.

“I think that he focuses real hard on his work, and I don’t think he really will be too affected by anything on the outside. It will be interesting. I just look forward to getting in there and seeing how we communicate.”

The team didn’t have the luxury of offseason testing, so they’re “kind of starting from scratch here at Daytona,” Earnhardt said.

No one doubts the new combination will work and eventually land that Chase spot.

“He was the obvious choice,” Letarte said.

“But there’s no other name I could dream up or put on front of the wall that I could put in front of Greg’s.”

Daytona 500

Track: Daytona International Speedway (tri-oval, 2.5 miles), Daytona Beach, Fla.

Schedule: Sunday, race, 1 p.m. (Fox, noon-5 p.m.)

Distance: 500 miles (200 laps)

Defending champion: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the season-opening race for the second time.

Pole : Jeff Gordon