Hard to believe: Dale Earnhardt Jr. turns 40 this year — wants to send Steve Letarte out as a winner

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For many, the image of Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been frozen in time since the late 1990s or perhaps his first full season on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2000: that of a young red-haired, cherub-faced kid just excited about life and living the dream of being a NASCAR driver.

But Earnhardt revealed some rather sober and potentially earth-shattering news Tuesday that potentially may shock many members of his legendary Junior Nation of fans:

NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 11 years running is going to turn 40 this year!

October 10, to be precise.

“I think I turned 40 before I was supposed to,” Earnhardt laughed during the second day of the four-day NASCAR Media Tour. “I don’t feel 40, I don’t even feel close to 40. It’s weird for me to say that and I think about it all the time that I’m going to be 40 years old this year, because I don’t feel anything near 40.

“I don’t think I think like a 40 year old man, I still have a lot of immaturity in me and like to have fun and goof off. And I feel in my racing and work ethic and the way I approach what I’m doing and how long I’ve been here, I don’t feel 40.

“I don’t feel burned out, don’t feel worn out, don’t feel like this is old hat, don’t feel bored. I feel like I’m just as excited about Daytona as I’ve ever been each year that I’ve went there. I guess when it gets boring or it’s not as exciting, I’ll start to freak out. Yeah, I don’t feel 40, that’s weird. But maybe that means I’ll last a little bit younger than most guys.”

And if Junior has his way once he hits 40, he plans on racing for another decade, something his loyal fans will likely be happy to hear.

That means there’s still plenty of chances for that elusive first Sprint Cup championship – if not 10 titles in a row potentially (hey, you can’t blame him for being optimistic, right?).

“Ten’s a lot of years and that would be enough,” Earnhardt said. “I think if I retired at 50, I’d be real thrilled that I made it that long.”

While Earnhardt stressed that his main goal in 2014 is to win races – he hasn’t won a Cup race since 2012 and only two since 2006 – winning a championship would be a fitting sendoff and homage to Letarte, who will become a TV analyst for NBC Sports in 2015.

It’s important to send Letarte out on top, Earnhardt said.

“It’s important to me, but hell, it’s part of his responsibility, too,” Earnhardt said with a laugh.

But then, Earnhardt turned more serious on his feeling about Letarte.

“I’m going into the last season with Steve, who I love to work with, and I really want to enjoy that moment, that is, the whole season,” Earnhardt said. “Me and Steve are so close and this is going to be a lot of fun to work with him one more season. I want to make sure it’s one we enjoy and he can be happy when he’s finished and then we can move on and continue to compete.”

And that final farewell season to one of the best crew chiefs he’s had in his career starts in a few weeks, Earnhardt said.

“When we run Daytona, we’re going to run it for the last time, his last Daytona 500 as a crew chief,” Earnhardt said. “We’re going to be working every single lap to try to do the best we can for each other. And I think that’s good, it can elevate our performance and our team.

“I think the team could feed off that and we may be able to accomplish the things we set out to accomplish in this last season together.”

How has Earnhardt changed from a 23-year-old Busch Series driver in 1998 to a 40-year-old, 15-year Cup veteran in 2014? Hardly at all, Earnhardt said.

“I don’t think my personality is anything special or unique in any way, but I think I’m a good guy that tries to make good decisions and tries to treat people right.,” he said. “All the things, the success, star power, celebrity has been just short of a fluke, like an oddity that could have happened to anybody.

“The work ethic is however you want to be at your job, and if you enjoy what you do and want to be successful at it, you’ll work hard to try and do that. I know myself, I’ve learned a lot about work ethic over the last 20 years.

“You get into racing thinking you’re working your guts out, and then you learn there/s another step, and then you learn that there’s another step and you just keep finding more in yourself over a long period of time and look back at all those things you wish you’d known when you were a kid. It could have made things easier.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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