Created: 11/20/2014 7:21 AM WNYT.com
By: DAN GELSTON
Dale Earnhardt Jr. imagined his Nationwide Series trophy was a chalice, tipped it back and acted like he was taking a big swig of champagne or beer — the beverages of choice for NASCAR winners and champions.
Earnhardt had plenty of practice chugging this season.
He left Homestead-Miami Speedway with one more keepsake for the home office — he's running out of room with a corner of his North Carolina home occupied with a Martinsville grandfather clock — and validation that his foray into team ownership was the right call nearly a decade ago.
Earnhardt's career renaissance in 2014 was capped with the Nationwide championship he won with JR Motorsports driver Chase Elliott and crew chief Greg Ives. He opened the season with a Daytona 500 victory, swept at Pocono and won for the first time in 30 career races at Martinsville Speedway.
All he missed was a spot in the final four and a shot at the Sprint Cup championship.
With his sunglasses on for a series of poolside interviews in the hours before the Nationwide banquet, Earnhardt should have been basking in the glow of his greatest all-around season since jumping to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
But the season-ending parties were also a bleak reminder that Wednesday marked 93 days until the Daytona 500.
"The offseason always kind of throws me into a funk," Earnhardt said. "You want to go to the track the next weekend."
Earnhardt can take solace in all the success of '14, even as he looks ahead to a bit of an uncertain 2015. Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte clicked on and off the track this season, talking about championship contention from the moment they took the checkered flag at Daytona. Letarte, though, will be making his calls next season for NBC Sports instead of atop the pit box, and Ives will take over after one season as Elliott's crew chief.
Letarte posted an Instagram photo of a checkered flag sticker on a computer keyboard in his old office.
"Cleaned out my office today. Left this sticker for the new guy. I expect a lot of these next year Greg & @DaleJr #winners," Letarte tweeted.
Ives, who has paid his dues at Hendrick, gets his turn to try and guide Earnhardt to his first Cup championship.
Ives has been successful at JRM, winning two races last year with Regan Smith and leading the 18-year-old Elliott to the Nationwide crown his rookie season. Ives also was race engineer for Jimmie Johnson's record run of five consecutive championships, and worked under Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus and alongside Earnhardt's No. 88 team on the Cup side.
While Ives has leaned on Letarte for advice, he planned on calling races and building a relationship with Junior his own way.
"I can't treat Dale any different than I have Regan or Chase the last two years," Ives said. "I have to adapt to their sense of style, their lingo, what makes them go. I'm not going to try and be any different than I have been the last couple of years. I'll adapt to what Dale wants me to do or be, but also bring my own sense of style."
Ives, from Bark River, Michigan, joined Hendrick Motorsports as a mechanic in 2004. He moved into an engineering role on the No. 48 team in 2006. In seven years working with Knaus, he contributed to 42 wins, 113 top-five finishes and 21 pole positions in the Sprint Cup Series.
That kind of resume has Earnhardt excited about the future.
"Greg can step in and bring in a lot of things that Steve didn't offer," he said. "Steve's not an engineer. He's more of a people manager. He's great at it. He did an awesome job. But Greg's got other attributes that are strong and I think he can bring a lot of new ideas to the team."
Earnhardt had no idea how long it might take to match the winning formula he found this season. But once they do, Earnhardt and crew might have enough juice to wrest the championship away from Kevin Harvick.
"As the season goes on, we'll be as strong as we were this year, if not stronger," Earnhardt said. "I think we can expect to get better than we were this year."
PENSKE-DISCOUNT TIRE: Team Penske has reached a multi-year contract extension with Discount Tire to remain a primary sponsor of its championship-winning car for at least 24 races in the XFINITY Series.
Discount Tire will also be an associate sponsor for both the No. 2 and No. 22 Ford Fusions in the Sprint Cup Series.
Michael Zuieback, President of Discount Tire, called Team Penske "a loyal ambassador" since the relationship began in 2010.
The No. 22 team just won its second consecutive owner championship in NASCAR's second-tier series. Roger Penske indicated last weekend during the season finale that the car will be driven next season by Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney. Penske said he hoped Blaney would run at least 12 races.
KEYS TO THE CITY: IndyCar champion Will Power has been given the keys to the city of Mooresville, North Carolina.
The Australian driver has made "Race City USA" his home because he drives for Team Penske, which is located in Mooresville. His championship this season was the first in IndyCar for Penske since 2006, but the first open-wheel title for a team based in NASCAR-centric North Carolina.
"I know that I speak for everyone when I say that we are proud to represent this area when we are competing. It's really become a great home for us," Power said. "When you think of this area, the first thing that comes to your mind is NASCAR. That will never change, but we hope that it's also known that there is a bloody good Verizon IndyCar Series team here, too."
(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)