Earnhardt Jr. not surprised by Letarte's decision
January 10, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Crew chief Steve Letarte's announcement that he would move off Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pit box in 2015 and into the NBC Sports broadcast booth may have stunned many in the racing world, but it didn't surprise his driver, who said he knew Letarte was contemplating the career switch as far back as October.
"It's definitely a unique situation," Earnhardt told reporters Friday from Daytona International Speedway. "I had a pretty good understanding what his decision was going to be when I left Homestead, so I've had time to really wrap my brain around it."
Earnhardt said he first "heard rumblings" in October during the Charlotte race weekend that Letarte was considering a move to the TV booth. And Earnhardt asked Letarte to meet him in his motor coach to talk about it.
"I didn't know the specifics of what he was thinking about doing," Earnhardt recalled, "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. So it was a huge shock at first, just for me personally.
"I sat down with him and talked about it, the more it made sense and the more I understood his situation and I could put my own selfishness aside and kind of understand what was important to him and how this was good for him."
"He's (a) good guy. He deserves these opportunities and he's earned it."
As Earnhardt took questions, Letarte quietly took a seat on the side of the room and listened. Earnhardt had watched earlier and listened as NBC formally introduced Letarte, 34, who sat alongside his future teammate in the television booth, veteran driver Jeff Burton.
During the back-to-back news conferences, Earnhardt and Letarte both professed their appreciation for one another and seemed genuinely at peace with the decision -- both in its short-term effects and what it will mean for their futures.
The relationship between the two has been as impactful away from the track as at the track. Earnhardt credits Letarte with helping him regain confidence behind the wheel and appreciate a broader perspective on life beyond racing. For Letarte, Hendrick Motorsports has been the only place he has ever worked.
The strong bond is why Letarte involved Earnhardt in the decision-making process from the beginning. Letarte said Earnhardt was the second person he revealed his intentions to -- after his wife.
"That's the unique thing about Dale and I is we have a tough, very strong, professional relationship, but I think our success has really come from our personal relationship that he has taught me a lot about life in the last three years," Letarte said. "I hope I've taught him a lot about how he prepares and how I go through life. He's an unmarried guy without children, I'm a married guy with children, yet we bounce a lot of stuff off each other.
"He was a person that I involved pretty early in the whole thing because I want his opinion."
For Earnhardt that personal connection was as significant as how well Letarte tuned the car and made strategy calls.
"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 race track and professionally I was having a hard time up until that point in the couple years before I worked with Steve.
"I really feel like he's helped me become much more professional behind the wheel in handling my responsibilities and communicating and carrying myself as an adult and as a professional."
Earnhardt added, "That was a bit of a problem for me when I was younger."
Both men fully realize the questions and second-guessing will occur if Earnhardt's results in the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet dip this season. His fifth-place finish in the 2013 Sprint Cup championship was his highest in eight seasons, although his last win -- and only one with Letarte -- came nearly two years ago at Michigan.
Letarte said working with two of the biggest names in the sport -- Jeff Gordon (2005-2010) and now NASCAR's 11-time reigning Most Popular Driver Earnhardt -- has prepared him for the Monday morning quarterbacking.
He doesn't expect his lame-duck status to negatively affect the team and neither does Earnhardt.
"I have been able to work with some of the biggest stars in the sport," Letarte said.
"Since I was a young kid and became crew chief for Jeff (Gordon), I've been second‑guessed, and I can assure the group that no one second‑guesses or questions my decisions more than me.
"I want to be better the next day than I was yesterday … and I tell all my guys this, every day when I get up I look in the mirror and say, 'I'm going to outwork and outperform everyone in my field,' and that's my goal.
"We still have a year to go, and I'm going to ‑‑ this opportunity will really let me cherish that year like I would hope where I can really ‑‑ 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 I think will make me really enjoy and cherish and put the right foot forward for the next season."
Earnhardt has seemingly adopted a similar strategy to the season.
"Your first reaction is to get really disappointed and go, 'man, you know this is the last year' and trudge through it and be sad," Earnhardt said. "But after you think about it for a while ... you're fortunate we get to work together one more year.
"Our friendship and how we enjoy working together excites us that we have that opportunity and enthuses us to go through this process for one more season. I feel almost lucky in that regard that I get the opportunity to work with him for one more season."
Interestingly, Earnhardt said he doesn't wish to give any input into the search for Letarte's successor, instead letting the Hendrick Motorsports higher-ups handle what will be one of the most coveted jobs in the sport.
"I won't make any suggestions at all, I will leave that up to Rick (Hendrick) and Doug (Duchardt)," Earnhardt said.
"I would love to have input from (six-time Cup champion crew chief) Chad Knaus and Steve (Letarte). I think Steve knows what makes this team work. Steve knows how I can be successful and how the individuals within the team can be successful. And I think it's important that Chad has got a lot of influence because he knows how well the shop works together and what the culture is in the shop and how a particular guy may mesh in that environment.
"I just want to trust their judgment and that's what I'm going to do."
In the meantime, Earnhardt and Letarte insist they are preparing for the 2014 season as they normally would.
"I know that we'll be fine as far as how we'll compete this year and how dedicated and how we might move the through the process this season," Earnhardt said. "But it's definitely going to be emotional and difficult at times, just because we really enjoy working together."
"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.
"I expect us to do nothing less than improve on what we've been doing and steadily keep moving toward our goals."