Dale Earnhardt Jr. On Crew Chief Change: 'I Needed This To Happen'

Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked Hendrick Motorsports officials to keep him out of the decision-making process when it came to offseason personnel changes.

But after being told last week he'll now be driving for crew chief Steve Letarte and working with the former No. 24 team, Earnhardt Jr. said he's bursting with excitement about 2011.

"It's like knowing what you're getting for Christmas, but not being able to mess with it until that morning," he said Thursday in Las Vegas.

The change marks the end of an unsuccessful season and a half with former crew chief Lance McGrew, who is now working with Mark Martin.

Letarte, formerly with Jeff Gordon, brings a fresh, upbeat approach to what is now the No. 88 team. And as Earnhardt Jr. said, a "clean slate" has potential to do him some good.

"I think it's healthy," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We needed this to happen. I needed this to happen. And hopefully this...will get me back to winning races, running in the top five, running in the top 10.

"I know I can be that guy again – at least that good. This is a good opportunity to see if that can happen."

Fans and media alike often took note of the tumultuous relationship between Earnhardt Jr. and McGrew on the team radio, even though driver and crew chief kept insisting it was no big deal.

Was it?

"That's genuine," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We really did have a good bond. There was good trust and I really bought into the program and bought into Lance's opportunity and ability to lead us as a crew chief.

"And I think we did some good things, we just weren't moving along fast enough as far as getting productive and becoming better as a team. In this time and age, you gotta produce now. We feel that urgency and that responsiblity and that pressure."

Earnhardt Jr., who stopped by the former No. 88 shop last week to take his old crew members out for a goodbye/thank-you lunch, said any sniping between he and McGrew was out of frustration.

He said the two would sit down and talk about it, telling each other they were simply frustrated and not mad at the other person.

"We pretty much knew just things weren't working well," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We were very aware of what reality was and how we were running and how poorly things were going. And we were frustrated.

"We're pitted so closely together throughout the weekend that some of that's going to bounce off each other a little bit, but I never really took that personally from him."

Earnhardt Jr. said he and McGrew were "good friends" and they handled situations better than the driver did with his former crew chief, cousin Tony Eury Jr.

Letarte, though, brings an entirely different attitude. Optimistic and chatty, the 31-year-old crew chief brings a new energy that hasn't always been apparent with Earnhardt Jr.'s past crew chiefs.

"Me and Steve have been spending a lot of time together," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He overtalks a lot and you can't get in a word in around him, but if you can hack it, that's about the only bad thing about him. He's got a great disposition and a great personality. Everybody knows what kind of guy he is.

"I hope for me that being around him and his group and their professionalism will rub off on me, make me a better driver and make me a better person, more productive."

One possible change is already in the works. Letarte, who has a wife and two young children, told Earnhardt Jr. that his family listens to the team radio every Sunday through a home speaker system.

That may not be good for Earnhardt Jr., who has a penchant for cursing.

"I'm definitely going to have to change my vocabulary," he said, "if I can."

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