The bond between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and sister Kelley has become the stuff of legend. In their youth she followed him to military school to keep an eye on him. She guided his business empire through their father’s death and stepmother’s estrangement. They can handle anything, right?
If so, putting the man Kelley divorced a couple of years ago on top of Dale Jr.’s pit box to save the driver’s career would’ve been no sweat. And it would have been a much better choice than Steve Letarte, who now comes into Earnhardt’s stable following Tuesday’s massive Hendrick crew chief switch-up having not figured out how to win a title with Jeff Gordon.
Long before Jimmy Elledge said “I do” to Kelley Earnhardt, he changed tires for Dale Earnhardt Sr., winning a couple of titles along the way. He served as a car chief under Larry McReynolds for Earnhardt in 1997. So he’s no stranger to the Earnhardt legacy.
The last couple of years have been pretty rocky for Elledge. Besides the divorce, he was replaced as Juan Pablo Montoya’s crew chief by Chip Ganassi, a move that made Montoya want to spit nails. Then Elledge landed at a Red Bull Racing operation that valued painted toenails (Scott Speed) over driving acumen (AJ Allmendinger). He’s hasn’t had success, but it hasn’t been his fault.
Junior was looking for yet another crew chief after finding no real chemistry with Lance McGrew. To avoid what will be looked at as a disappointing career by many, Earnhardt needed to find a perfect fit. Let’s face it: Dale Jr. is talented but sensitive. Kyle Busch, for all his issues, could nab a top 10 driving a Toro lawnmower with Daffy Duck calling the shots.
But Earnhardt needs everything right. (That’s not an indictment, BTW. Most drivers aren’t good enough to win a title even if they had the perfect storm.) He doesn’t trust many people outside of his family. And yet, a partnership with someone as close as Tony Eury Jr., a cousin who is more like a brother, proved too volatile.
But in Elledge there was a kindred spirit out there for Earnhardt, one of the few people who connected with his sister as much as he has. Divorces happen for a lot of reasons, but Dale Jr. and Elledge still have the memories of commiserating when Kelley had her medical emergency in 2007. Kelley recently told a parenting magazine that although the couple split, they still have a good relationship.
“The good thing is everything turned out fine and everything’s going to be wonderful,” Elledge told ESPN.com in 2007, after Kelley Earnhardt had benign tumors removed from her pancreas. “The kids are going have their mom for a long, long time, and for me and Dale Jr., we get to be the fortunate ones to have somebody there to keep us in line.”
One relationship may have ended, but another could have begun in 2011 with Dale Jr. and Elledge both looking for redemption. Rick Hendrick tried to rearrange the same furniture last year, sticking some of Mark Martin’s team members with Earnhardt. It did nothing for Junior, and kneecapped Martin’s momentum.
Something really outside-the-box was in order. And Hendrick, who has seen opportunities so many times in the business world when others didn’t, missed out this time.