Dale Jr. will leave crew chief decision to others
February 07, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Letarte, Earnhardt entering fourth and final season together
MORE: Dale Jr. profile | Hendrick Motorsports preview | As Junior searches, Evernham insists he's out
When it comes to determining who his new crew chief will be beginning in 2015, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to be in the room when the discussions are taking place. But he'll leave the ultimate decision up to others within his Hendrick Motorsports team -- owner Rick Hendrick foremost among them.
Earnhardt's current crew chief, Steve Letarte, is leaving after this coming season to become a race analyst for NBC Sports, which returns as a NASCAR broadcast partner beginning in 2015. Although Earnhardt and Letarte have won just one race in their three years together to this point, they've helped revive a once-flagging No. 88 program that finished fifth in final points -- Earnhardt's best-ever standing at Hendrick -- in 2013.
The duo hopes to build on that this season, during which decisions on a successor to Letarte will eventually have to be made. And although Earnhardt will work most closely with whomever the new signal-caller is, he feels others -- like Hendrick, team general manager Doug Duchardt, and Jimmie Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus -- are better suited to make the call.
"I know we'll have these conversations in the middle of the year, or whenever Doug and Rick and those guys want to start having them, and I want to be in the room having those conversations. But Rick was smart enough to put me and Steve together. Doug has his finger on that company as well as anybody. Chad knows the culture inside the race shop. Steve knows the culture inside the race shop. Steve knows what makes me tick, and what makes that team tick. And those are the guys who need to get together and have that conversation," Earnhardt said.
"I'd love to be in that room, but I wouldn't have the intelligence and expertise that they have to make that decision. They (have) a certain perspective that's unique to be able to do that. I really want to trust what they think. I don’t know what I would have a big impact on at this point. It's so fresh still, we haven't even looked in that direction yet."
Indeed, Hendrick said in the immediate aftermath of Letarte's decision last month that a call on a replacement would likely wait until late in the year. In more recent days, he's stood by that timetable.
"I don't plan to make any decision right now," the team owner said. "I mean, we've got a whole year to race. We've got a deep bench if you look at the guys we have in the organization, and guys throughout the Nationwide Series and everything else. It's definitely going to take the right fit. All of our guys, Dale will be involved in that decision and Chad, who's in that shop, but we're going to try to run as well with Steve Letarte until the end of the year, and then we'll make that decision."
And Hendrick said he would welcome any input from Earnhardt. "He has a lot of confidence in us to make the right decision," the owner said, "but at the same time, the chemistry has got to be there, and we want him involved."
Traditionally, Hendrick had made such moves in-house, or looked to those with previous ties to the organization. Letarte moved to Earnhardt's program from the team of Jeff Gordon, whose current crew chief Alan Gustafson previously worked on Hendrick's No. 5 team. Although Knaus worked at Melling Racing immediately prior to becoming Johnson's crew chief, he had been a member of the No. 24 crew under Ray Evernham.
"We're in a great organization where we have a lot of great people to lean on, and I'm sure we'll look inside the organization first to see if we find that guy," Earnhardt said. "I want to get excited about what 2015 looks like, I want to get excited about what that change is going to be like, and how that team can get better, and what effect that can have on us as far as performance goes. But I'm going into the last season with Steve, who I love to work with, and I want to really enjoy that moment that is the whole season."
Although Evernham is expanding his consultant work with Hendrick to include some areas of racing operations, he has reiterated countless times that he has no desire to return as a crew chief. And while the organization would appear to have internal candidates such as No. 48 car chief Ron Malec and JR Motorsports crew chief Greg Ives, there are no early indications as to who Earnhardt's next crew chief might be. Letarte believes the ultimate decision will rest with Hendrick, who was behind the personnel shuffle following the 2010 season that paired him with Earnhardt in the first place.
"I have my opinions on all of it, I'm sure at some point I'll have my opportunity to sit down with management," said Letarte, who in 2015 will join an NBC booth that also includes 21-time race winner Jeff Burton and announcer Rick Allen. "That's really Rick's decision. He knows how to replace people the best, and I want to be around to answer questions, because he might need some questions answered to make his decision. But I think he knows what everybody needs once he gets those questions answered."
Earnhardt sees the looming change as an opportunity to ultimately make the No. 88 team better. "Steve will tell you that as well," the driver said. For the moment, though, he has confidence in his organization to make the right decision on a successor, and he has faith that he and Letarte can make their final season together a memorable one.
"I'm in a good position. If you’ve got to change something as big as a crew chief, I'm in a great organization that can make that change and make it seamless. I'm in a shop with the 48/88 team where the culture is amazing. I know whoever comes in and handles that job will have all the resources needed to have success. Part of me wants to get excited about that and what that looks like and start to figure that out, but there's a job at hand, and that's this season," Earnhardt said.
"Me and Steve have an opportunity to wok together one more year. I really enjoy working with that guy, so I feel lucky to have one more year to work with him before he goes off and does his own thing in the broadcast booth. I'm excited for him to have something he's looking forward to, as a friend, and everything's going to work out. I'm a believer that everything happens for a reason, and I know it's gong to be great for him, and I believe it's an opportunity for our team to get better as well."