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Letarte leaving the 'best job in the garage'

January 11, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Earnhardt Jr. won't offer suggestions on Letarte's replacement

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Even as news was still breaking that Steve Letarte would vacate his crew chief job at Hendrick Motorsports in 2015 to join the NBC Sports broadcast team, the projections, rumors and predictions about who would replace him atop Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pit box began.

"I think it’s the best job in the garage that's coming open; I would put it at the top of the list," Letarte said Friday.

And who would argue? Working for the most successful championship NASCAR Sprint Cup Series organization in NASCAR history, calling the shots for Earnhardt, the sport's perennial Most Popular Driver, is an attractive -- albeit challenging -- form of employment.

However, the man most vested in the pairing, the driver himself, said he thinks it best to have no input into the search process.

"I won't make any suggestions at all," he said. "I will leave that up to Rick (Hendrick) and (general manager) Doug (Duchardt). And I would love to have input from Chad Knaus and Steve. I think that Steve knows what makes this team work.

"I think it's important he has a lot of influence, because he knows how well the shop works together and what the culture is in the shop, how a particular guy may mesh in that environment."

When approached in the Sprint Cup garage by NASCAR.com during Friday’s Preseason Thunder test session, Knaus said he preferred not to name any front-runners specifically. But he acknowledged his Hendrick Motorsports team has a preferred history of promoting from within.

"It’s cool that Dale values my opinion," said Knaus, a six-time title-winning crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, whose No. 48 team shares a shop with Earnhardt’s No. 88 team.

"I think there's a lot of people out there that could fit into the mold we've got there pretty well and not disrupt it too badly. But it's going to be a task for sure.

"You have to realize Steve’s been there a long time. Mike Landis, our team manager, has been there a long time too. And when you bring someone new into the fold it's going to change it a little bit. We want to be cautious and make sure whoever comes in doesn’t really disrupt the workflow of that shop because that shop has been pretty successful."

As for a front-runner from within the Hendrick organization, Knaus would only say, "the company always tries to (promote from within), but this is all brand new so I can't comment too much on it right now."

While Knaus preferred to defer, the rest of the Sprint Cup garage was buzzing with speculation.

One obvious potential candidate is Ron Malec, Knaus' right-hand man as car chief on Johnson's six champion runs.

Greg Ives would also be a legitimate candidate. He currently works at Earnhardt's JR Motorsports operation as crew chief for 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series rookie Chase Elliott, and Ives would bring the experience of working for and with Earnhardt. He worked alongside Knaus at Hendrick for nine years, serving as race engineer on Johnson's five consecutive championship seasons (2006-10).

Hendrick Motorsports issued a statement Thursday expressing support for Letarte’s decision and stressing it did not want the future job vacancy to be a distraction for the present.

"We don't expect to address the crew chief position until after the season," the statement said. "Everyone with the team is focused on 2014 and committed to having another great year."

Letarte said he'd be glad to offer his opinion and assist in the search for his replacement, but like Earnhardt and Knaus, he insisted this decision ultimately and fittingly belongs in Hendrick's hands.

"That's a question for Rick Hendrick how much he wants to involve me or not involve me," Letarte said. "I'd be happy to help him anyway I can, help Dale, help anyone involved. I care about them like family and I'll do anything I can do to help with their decision. Rick is the magician to this. He puts the right people together, so I don’t know if he needs my help. But if he wants it, I’ll be there."

And while Earnhardt may not have a preference or a desire to participate in the search for Letarte's replacement, he does know that person will have some big shoes to fill.

"I think that my fear is just (replacing) Steve," Earnhardt said. "It's a guy that's going to be hard to replace."

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