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Nobody knew if he could actually pick Earnhardt back up and coach him back to Victory Lane, but that’s the genius of Hendrick, who realized Earnhardt desperately needed someone to restore his confidence. Letarte played the cheerleader role to perfection, and although Earnhardt didn’t win last season, he improved his top-fives and top-10s, and returned to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the first time since 2008.

It set the stage for this season. Through 15 races, Earnhardt has matched his top-10s from last season, improved his top-fives (he has six after four last year) and his 218 laps led are his most since 2008.

The turnaround is so impressive that Earnhardt _ the guy who just snapped a four-year losing streak _ is suddenly considered a viable championship contender.

That’s what happens when you don’t quit, or bow to the pressure. Earnhardt could have made a pretty nice fortune running around in 15th or so for the rest of his career, collecting paychecks and trophies as the most popular driver.

Instead, he bought into whatever Letarte sold him at the start of 2011. So what if Earnhardt never wins a Sprint Cup championship? It won’t be for lack of trying.