BURNS: Around The Track

Dale Jr., left, has had some great moments with crew chief Steve Letarte, including winning the Daytona 500. (HHP/Tom Copeland photo)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, has had some great moments with crew chief Steve Letarte, including winning the Daytona 500. But next year, Letarte’s job is Greg Ives’. (HHP/Tom Copeland photo)

MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Greg Ives isn’t afraid of a challenge.

Ives, the brilliant 34-year-old NASCAR Nationwide Series crew chief for Chase Elliott, will leave Elliott’s pit box for Elliott’s car owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., next year in Sprint Cup. It’ll be Ives’ third different driver in three years, but there’s reason to think he can do the job.

He won two races with JR Motorsports driver Regan Smith in 2013 and he’s already guided Elliott to three wins this season. So what will be different when he moves up to run Earnhardt’s Cup program at Hendrick Motorsports?

Well, everything. Ives is a skilled tactician who has made the right call much more than the wrong one since Earnhardt’s Nationwide team – co-owned by Rick Hendrick – hired him in November 2012. He was Jimmie Johnson’s engineer during the six-time Sprint Cup champion’s string of five straight titles from 2006-10. But things are different now.

This is Earnhardt.

He’s NASCAR’s most popular figure, its most marketable personality and a pretty successful driver, too. He’s got two wins, including the Daytona 500, this season. Crew chief Steve Letarte heads to the NBC Sports broadcast booth next year.

The Earnhardt-Letarte combo, or as I’ll call it, the Earnharte combo – or Lethardt if you prefer – has three victories in three and a half seasons, but they’ve made the Chase for the Sprint Cup every year since their pairing began in 2011. There are considerable shoes to fill.

Remember, Earnhardt was once paired with a crew chief who had lots of success in what was then the Busch Series, and even won a title. But Lance McGrew and Earnhardt went together like oil and sweet tea.

Maybe even oil and unsweetened tea.

Their personalities never meshed, Earnhardt had just four top-fives in a year and a half with McGrew and when he left, we were reminded of what Earnhardt can do when things are going right. Earnhardt went from 21st in points in 2010 with McGrew to seventh in 2011 with Letarte. He was fifth last year.

Ives isn’t McGrew, though, and that’s a good thing. McGrew is a smart crew chief in his own right, but Earnhardt needs someone who can keep him motivated and just as important, upbeat. Letarte has filled the role better than any chief since Earnhardt’s first, his uncle Tony Eury Sr.

Ives isn’t Eury, either, but he’s the type of man who can put Earnhardt in some good situations. His NNS success doesn’t guarantee trophies in Cup. Make no mistake: Wins will be how Ives’ performance is judged. But it’s wise to give him time.

His first season as a Cup crew chief will be his first of running an entire program, one that’s definitely championship-caliber on its best days. And Earnhardt turns 40 in October, so there’s got to be some urgency to win. Ives is a calm type of guy though, who can keep Earnhardt balanced during races.

There’s no guarantee the Ives-Earnhardt pair will succeed the same way the “Earnharte” pair has. But there’s reason to be optimistic.

It’ll be fun to see how it goes.