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Don't count out Earnhardt Jr., Letarte in 2014

January 15, 2014, Kenny Bruce,

Recent history shows lame-duck teams can succeed

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart and Darian Grubb in 2011. Kevin Harvick and Gil Martin in 2013.
Two driver-crew chief combinations that on the surface appeared to have little or no reason to succeed given their respective circumstances.
Or so we thought. We were wrong.
What each accomplished comes to mind as we begin to dissect the ramifications of Steve Letarte’s 2014 end-of-season departure.

The crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports organization, Letarte has helped lead the sport's most popular driver back to respectability. No, the wins haven't flowed -- let's be honest, they haven't even trickled with the pairing producing just a single victory. But Earnhardt Jr. posted 10 top-fives finishes in both 2012 and 2013 with Letarte as his wingman, and his 22 top-10 finishes in 2013 were a career best. His fifth-place points finish last year was his best overall result since 2006.
Now that Letarte's impending exit has been announced (he'll join NBC Sports in 2015), will the team continue to move forward? Or will the breakup lead to a loss of focus?

Not surprisingly, both Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte have said they don't expect the news to impact this year's efforts.

"I expect us to do nothing less than improve on what we've been doing and steadily keep moving toward our goals," Earnhardt Jr. said.

"I think what makes this situation unique compared to any driver situation I can remember is I'm not going to crew chief for another organization," said Letarte. "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."

Does the "what" Letarte will be doing next year matter? Or is the fact he won’t be back more important here?

No doubt, if the team starts slow, Letarte will be the scapegoat. If they succeed … well, the big question is can they succeed?

Stewart and Grubb did. Harvick and Martin did as well.

Grubb, the former Stewart-Haas Racing crew chief who now turns the wrenches, so to speak, for Denny Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing, helped Stewart earn a third career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in 2011.

He did so even though he found out during the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup that he would not be retained for the following season. That Stewart himself had said his team didn’t deserve a spot in the field given its pre-Chase results made what the group accomplished (five Chase wins after going winless during the regular season) that much more impressive.

They could have mailed it in. Started working on the next season. Shown Grubb the door.

The Harvick/Martin effort of 2013 was equally impressive, if not quite as successful. Harvick won four races and finished third in points, which came after the news leaked out toward the end of the 2012 season and was confirmed during the 2013 season that Harvick would exit Richard Childress Racing for SHR in 2014.

Toss in the fallout of Harvick berating the organization after an on-track skirmish with fellow RCR driver Ty Dillon (grandson of team owner Richard Childress) at Martinsville in the fall and you have a volatile situation on your hands.

Yet no implosion occurred.

The Harvick/Martin situation "is a great example" of what teams can accomplish in such situations, said Larry McReynolds, the former crew chief who now works as a television analyst for FOX Sports.

"Every group is different, and it’s the people that control (the outcome)," he said. "That's where I think Harvick and Gil Martin and even Richard Childress -- even throwing the fact of all the stuff that went on at Martinsville … they still kept their heads down and were still focused on winning races and contending for the championship."

Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte have every reason to believe that this latest development will be nothing more than fodder for the naysayers.

They've got 36 more races, beginning with next month's Daytona 500, to prove that that's indeed the case.


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