Crew chief’s impending departure leaves Earnhardt with mixed emotions

Jerry Markland

Although initially “shocked,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now confident his team can withstand the loss of crew chief Steve Letarte.

As Dale Earnhardt sat on the dais fielding questions about the departure of his crew chief, there was seemingly a gamut of emotions conflicting NASCAR's most popular driver.

The day before, it had been made public that Steve Letarte would be resigning his position as Earnhardt's crew chief at the end of the 2014 season. Married with two young children, Letarte wanted to spend more time with his family and get away from the grueling schedule that comes with being a crew chief at NASCAR's highest level.

And the opportunity to become an analyst for NBC allowed him to be the family man he so craved.

"If I'm going to be unsuccessful in anything I do, being a father shouldn't be on that list," Letarte said Friday at Daytona International Speedway.

"It's going to be a challenge and a good challenge, one I'm ready to accept ... I'm sure that it's nothing to worry about."-Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt recognizes all this and is happy for Letarte. Additionally, he understands that NASCAR having a strong television presence only further enhances the sport, and being an analyst is a role which Letarte should thrive because of his spirited personality.

There were, however, other feelings that crept out during the 23-minute press conference.

While expressing confidence that his No. 88 team would successfully carry on without Letarte, Earnhardt was also forthright about the trepidation he felt when he first heard the news.

It was last October during the race weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway when Earnhardt, after hearing scuttlebutt that Letarte may be headed elsewhere, called his crew chief into his motor coach. The two talked and Letarte revealed he had been approached by NBC to join its broadcast team when the network took over the second half of the Sprint Cup schedule beginning in 2015.

"I was in shock," Earnhardt said. "I didn't know the specifics of what he was thinking about doing, just that he would even want to do anything different blew me away because we were all having such a good time and the team was moving forward and the trajectory was great for what we were trying to accomplish. We were getting closer and closer to realizing our potential."

At the time, Letarte was unsure if he would accept the offer. But by the time the season concluded a few weeks later at Homestead, Earnhardt figured this was the last race the two would be working together.

Although crew chiefs come and go and are often viewed as interchangeable, Earnhardt knows his current crew chief is the exception.

"I think that my fear is just, can we replace Steve?" he said. "It's a guy that's going to be hard to replace. I'm not worried about the specific qualities that Steve has, but just, will we be able to get a guy in there of equal talent, and how well will we be able to make that transition seamless? It's going to be a real challenge to do that, and I guess that's my only concern."

When Letarte took over the position prior to the 2011 season, Earnhardt was a beaten man emotionally. He was coming off back-to-back abysmal seasons where he failed to finish better than 20th in the standings. Here he was driving for the premier team in the garage and not only could he not win, he couldn't even sniff the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Tasked with reviving Earnhardt's career, Letarte first began by rebuilding his driver's floundering confidence. Letarte listened to Earnhardt, which wasn't always the case previously. Gone was the constant sniping on the radio during key junctures of a race. When information was asked for, Letarte would provide it accordingly and without annoyance.

The former crew chief of Jeff Gordon also demanded more of his new charge. Earnhardt was required to spend more time around the team and in post-race debriefings, putting aside the numerous sponsor obligations that often diverted his attention.

As a result, a bond formed quickly between the two men. And not far behind was the success that had eluded Earnhardt during his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports.

Under Letarte's direction, for the first time in his career Earnhardt made the Chase three consecutive years. A year ago, he placed fifth in points and set a career high for top-10s (22), and he enters 2014 harboring realistic championship aspirations.

On the surface, those hopes may now seem dashed. However, neither Earnhardt nor Letarte feels this year will be a throwaway because of Thursday's announcement. Earnhardt is a different driver than he was before Letarte's arrival -- more confident with himself and his abilities.

"It's definitely going to be emotional and difficult at times, just because we really enjoy working together," Earnhardt said. "But I'm excited about the year. I'm excited about our chances as a team. Steve is a great crew chief that's going to get us a good opportunity to try to win some races."

Although he will be dogged by questions regarding who will be sitting atop his pit box come 2015, Earnhardt made it clear Friday he wants nothing to do with the decision. That call will be left up to Rick Hendrick and other management types within the organization. Earnhardt also wants Chad Knaus involved in the process so the functionality of the 88 and 48 working in lockstep continues.

The focus for now is on the present and a season that starts in little over a month.

And in that regard, both Earnhardt and Letarte are fully committed to ending their partnership on a high note. As Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart all have recently shown, being a lame duck is no longer a recipe guaranteed to end in disappointment and anger.

"It's not going to be easy," Earnhardt said. "The easiest thing would be for us to not have to make any changes, but that's not the way life is. We'll face it head-on.

"But yeah, it's going to be a challenge and a good challenge, one I'm ready to accept, to try to create a new relationship with a new crew chief. I'm sure that it's nothing to worry about."

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