Dale Jr.'s return to success involves much more than his health

There’s no question it’s been a difficult road back to competition for Dale Earnhardt Jr., but his success this season will depend on much more than his health.

Dale Jr.'s return to success involves much more than his health
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet new Nationwide livery
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet new Nationwide livery
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet new Nationwide livery
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and his team
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Greg Ives
Press conference for the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series: Greg Ives, crew chief for Chase Elliott
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet new Nationwide livery

Certainly, Earnhardt’s health and his ability behind the wheel will play a big role in what the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team accomplishes in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

But there are other important pieces to the performance puzzle as well, namely the work of his crew chief, Greg Ives, and the members of the No. 88 team.

In order for us to be champions and compete on a weekly basis for wins, we have to continue to sustain our game

Greg Ives, Dale Earnhardt Jr. crew chief

Outside of Earnhardt himself, no one was affected more directly by the driver’s absence last fall while recovering from a concussion. The uncertainty Earnhardt faced was just as real for them as well.

The difference was, while Earnhardt stepped away to work on his recovery, the team still had to show up each week of the NASCAR season and continue to compete with another driver.

Car performance

And as Ives described this week at a test at Phoenix International Raceway, that was a difficult journey in itself.

“The first 18 races last year weren’t great but they were highlights of great race cars, I’m thinking of Atlanta, Phoenix and Texas,” Ives told Motorsport.com. “We had some good runs but we didn’t qualify well. That can be very tough.

“It wasn’t that performance wasn’t there, it was just we didn’t get the whole package together in race trim. The way Hendrick Motorsports was as a company, we kind of lacked in that qualifying area and on race day.

“We really couldn’t get much lower from where we were at when it came to team morale, to losing Dale, to the company having to sink its teeth into this and realize that if we didn’t lock arms, we’re not going to get any better.”

Many forget, the No. 88 team was faced with dual issues – that of losing its driver but also the difficulties the Hendrick organization faced on the competition side during the summer.

Putting it all together

With Alex Bowman as substitute driver, the team was able to mount an effective comeback on the track at the same time their teammate, Jimmie Johnson, was winning his NASCAR record-tying seventh Cup series title.

“Dale’s injury was unfortunate. In the end, we knew we had the ability, it was a question of putting it all together. As the company got better, I think the whole team started gaining confidence,” Ives said. “When that incident happened with Dale, I think our hearts sank a little bit and we wondered, ‘What next?’

“No matter how much of a cheerleader you are, or how enthusiastic you are, it’s something that hits home. It’s something you definitely feel responsible for. I don’t know to describe the feelings I felt when Dale gave me the call and said, ‘I feel like there is something wrong.’

“I’m not a doctor. I’m not a neurologist. I’m not one who would know the extent of the damage, but I knew what it meant for our race team, for me personally and for a lot of guys that had worked with him for so long.”

The team’s work with Bowman, which Earnhardt lauded in a media appearance Tuesday at Phoenix, helped maintain its cohesiveness while Earnhardt’s recovery was underway.

Now with Earnhardt medically cleared to race, the team appears rejuvenated like never before. The private test at Darlington in December and this two-day session at Phoenix have only reinforced their enthusiasm, Ives said.

“Dale has a lot of energy, a lot of excitement and I think that’s built a lot of confidence coming here. Not just about getting back in the car, but feeling what the race car feels like and having some sort of expectations,” he said.

“It’s great to have him back. We’re running a lot of laps. We did about 200 laps yesterday and we’ll probably get close to that by the end of the day today, maybe even more. We’re pushing the limits.”

Keep pushing for more

That’s the key. Complacency is not an option.

“In order for us to be champions and compete on a weekly basis for wins, we have to continue to sustain our game,” Ives said. “We can’t just say, ‘We had a good Phoenix test and a good Darlington test and we’re going to go out there and do this.’

“We have to continue to grow and just like any foundation, once you lay it, you’re able to build upon it. We have a better foundation than what we had coming into 2016. That’s the goal right now is to get that solid foundation established, get everybody to buy into it, have no weak links, and go from there.”

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