Coming to grips: Junior admits concern about losing crew chief
The end of the Dale Earnhardt Jr./Steve Letarte era is coming sooner than expected.
NBC Sports officially announced on Thursday that the affable crew chief will join its broadcast team, along with Rick Allen and Jeff Burton, in 2015.
Letarte’s departure after the upcoming season will certainly change the dynamic of the No. 88 crew. However, the move is a perfect fit for Letarte, 34, who has two young children. After spending a minimum of 38 weekends on the road each season since joining Hendrick Motorsports, Letarte will welcome the TV booth’s change of pace that’s better suited for raising a family.
"I think change drives fear in anybody," Letarte said. "All I’ve known is Hendrick Motorsports since I was 16. I’ve never worked elsewhere. But there’s a lot — I could waste … 30 minutes going through all the whys, but really when it comes down to it, probably the No. 1 thing is I have an 8- and a 10-year-old child and I know the commitment it takes to be a top-level crew chief.
"I don’t know first-hand the commitment that it takes to be great on television … but in my conversations with Sam (Flood, executive producer NBC Sports, NBCSN), I don’t think it’s quite the same commitment and travel commitment."
Although Letarte looped Earnhardt Jr. into his decision-making process, the driver was "shocked" when he first heard rumblings of the possibility last October. Earnhardt says he knew what Letarte’s decision would be by the time he left Homestead at season’s end.
Even though Earnhardt has had time to process the information, his trepidation was clear on Friday. How will NASCAR’s 11-time Most Popular Driver find another crew chief who is equal parts coach, strategist and — maybe most important — friend?
"I think the one thing that I fear is just trying to get a guy in there that’s equally as talented," Earnhardt said. "Steve is a great cheerleader and definitely built up my confidence and changed me as a race car driver and as a person. Working with him has really helped me grow. I think you guys have all seen that over the last several years.
Still, Earnhardt realizes that will be a challenge. He’s concerned about whether the team can "make that transition seamless" with whomever team owner Rick Hendrick recruits to fill Letarte’s position at the end of the 2014 season. But Earnhardt doesn’t want to have any influence on the choice. Although he would encourage the input of Letarte and (No. 48) crew chief Chad Knaus, Earnhardt trusts Hendrick and GM Doug Duchardt to make that call, given that their decision to align Earnhardt with Letarte has provided him with his most consistent run since moving to HMS in 2008.
Certainly, much of the credit for the No. 88 Chevy’s turnaround can be attributed to Letarte. Earnhardt’s confidence has been growing since he was paired with Letarte before the start of the 2011 Sprint Cup season.
"We really took off at the very beginning of our working relationship because he was always positive," Earnhardt said. "I’d beat myself up and went through such a struggle on the racetrack and professionally. I was having a hard time up until that point in the couple of years before I worked with Steve. And things just weren’t that good at all. I couldn’t get any traction, couldn’t get anything going in the right direction and I didn’t know why, why I didn’t run well. I couldn’t see a problem with the team I was with. I couldn’t see a problem with the people I was working with. I couldn’t see a reason why we were so unsuccessful.
"When I went to work with Steve, he was just always real positive. ‘We’re going to get this figured out. We’re going to get it better.’ And when we didn’t run well, he didn’t ask me why we didn’t run well. He said, ‘We’re going to figure out why the car didn’t perform. We’re going to give you a better car, and we’re going to improve the body or build a new chassis and we’re going to do things that can help you drive and race like you want to.’"
Instead of placating Earnhardt with empty promises, Letarte followed through with action. And that alleviated pressure from the driver. When performance didn’t go according to plan, Earnhardt didn’t feel completely responsible.
But Junior and Hendrick Motorsports’ loss will be the gain of NBC — and of the race fans who can’t travel to the track and must rely on commentators to describe the action and relay stories from the garage.
Flood believes that’s why Letarte will be an integral part of his team.
"Steve has so much personality, so much passion, so much energy that we know — no matter what’s going on on the racetrack, even if it’s a mellow race — Steve is going to make sure it is not a mellow telecast," Flood said. "And we think that’s a great thing. We think for the viewers, it’s going to be an incredible way to experience the race."
Flood believes the fact Letarte and Burton are "fresh out of the car" will enhance his commentators’ credibility with the audience. He also issued the crew chief a challenge "to win a lot of races," so when NBC takes over in 2015, Letarte can say, "We won here last year."
Letarte doesn’t need a catalyst to ignite his competitive spirit. Knowing that 2014 could be his last hurrah is enough of a spark to keep him atop his game. And even after Letarte makes the shift from crew chief to broadcaster, he will treasure his friendship with Earnhardt.
"To do what we’ve tried to do the last three years and hopefully will do this year and win a bunch of races and contend for a championship is more than just coming to work and saying hello," Letarte said. "We spend a lot of time away from the track together. Not just time — we’re very involved in each other’s lives — and I hope for that to continue past the end of 2014.
"But we still have a year to go. … When I come down here in a few weeks, this will be my last shot as a crew chief for a Daytona 500 pole, for a 150s win. I’ve never won a Daytona 500 as a crew chief. Those opportunities will make me really enjoy and cherish (this year) and put the right foot forward for the next season."