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Dale Earnhardt Jr. supportive of Letarte's move

January 10, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

No. 88 driver: 'Steve's really put the team in a difficult situation...'

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It won't be easy for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to part ways with Steve Letarte, but NASCAR's most popular driver understands why his crew chief will transition from the pit box into the broadcast booth following this season.

"I feel fine about the decision he's making. You'd love for things to stay the same, but they don't. That’s something I learned a long time ago in this sport and in life. Things don't stay the same, and things are going to change, and people are going to come and go in your life and you don't have a lot of control over that. This was one of those situations," Earnhardt told SiriusXM NASCAR satellite radio in an interview Thursday night at the fan fest following the rained-out opening day of Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona International Speedway.

"Steve had an opportunity, he's going to be off half of the season and be able to spend that time with his kids. That’s something that’s really important to him, probably the most important thing to him was being able to spend time with his kids and be around them and be with them. … There was no point in trying to talk him out of it, because I knew a long time ago that he had his mind made up. But I feel good about this year and I'm still confident about him and us working together. Because even though he's got plans in 2015, I know he'll stay focused on this team and this car."

NBC Sports announced Thursday that Letarte would step down from the crew chief's role after this year and become an analyst for the network, which returns as a NASCAR broadcast partner beginning in 2015. He will join race announcer Rick Allen and 21-time race-winning driver Jeff Burton in the booth. Letarte will continue to work with Earnhardt through the end of this season, and Hendrick Motorsports has not yet begun the search for a replacement.

Letarte said Friday morning that even though his role in the sport will change dramatically after the season, he views 2014 as an opportunity even though the last hurrah with NASCAR's Most Popular Driver will be bittersweet.

"I think that this is a very different situation because I'm not working on being a broadcaster in 2014, I'm working on filling a trophy case, and to do that we have to win our first race," Letarte said. "Dale and I have had that conversation, and he said it the best, that this will give us an opportunity to really cherish those races and those opportunities, and I think if anything, it might allow us to be better at our jobs because frustration sets in for everyone in the garage area. It's a tough sport. If it doesn't set in you don't care enough about your job."

Friday morning at the track, Earnhardt said Letarte had discussed the move with him before the end of the season, and that the decision was all but definite after the final race.

"So I've had time to really wrap my brain around it," Earnhardt said. "It was hard because we are such good friends, and I really do enjoy working with him a lot.  But at the same time I'm happy for him because it gives him the opportunity to spend time with his family. It's something that's really important to him, and the way these races are broadcast and how they're presented to the fans is a big part of how the sport remains healthy, and I think that he's going to be incredible in that role. I think that he'll ‑‑ I think that he'll be really good."

Under Letarte, Earnhardt has shown gradual improvement at Hendrick, and in 2013, recorded a fifth-place finish in final Sprint Cup Series points that was his best in almost a decade. Earnhardt said he and Letarte had discussed the crew chief's future for the past several months.

"It's really a tough deal to go through," Earnhardt added. "Steve's really put the team in a difficult situation, because we all enjoy working with him so much. But it has been rewarding for me personally to work with him, and it's something you'd love to continue to do. But he has an opportunity. He's a family man, and he has an opportunity to be with his family more with this position that he's been offered at NBC. So I'm happy for him as a person and as a friend."

Earnhardt said he believes the No. 88 team can continue to perform at a high level in Letarte's final season, and even after the current crew chief has moved on to television.

"I feel really, really confident that the team can run well all season," Earnhardt told SiriusXM. "And Steve will stay dedicated, he's that type of a guy. He's going to be professional, and we're going to have an opportunity to improve on what we've been doing, and we'll cross the bridge on who the next crew chief is when we need to. We haven't even had those discussions yet. It's just good to get this out there and get people talking about it and see what kind of bubbles to the surface and what our opportunities are as far as potential crew chiefs go for 2015. But I'm not very concerned about that. I've learned a lot from Steve, and he's instilled a lot of confidence in me, and I can go and carry that on. I've learned to be a better driver over the radio, and a better communicator, and I think I can continue to do that going forward."

Contributing: Staff reports

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