There is no doubt that the pairing of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte has produced Earnhardt Jr.’s most successful seasons with Hendrick Motorsports.
In 2013, Earnhardt Jr. failed to win a race, but, and perhaps more important, he finished fifth in the final point standings. It likely would have been higher had he not suffered engine failure at Chicagoland, the first race in the Chase.
In 2014, Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte will have one last chance together to accomplish greater things.
That’s because Letarte will move to the TV booth for NBC, which will begin broadcasting NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races in 2015.
Letarte, 34, will join Rick Allen and Jeff Burton in the booth, yet another union of television personality, driver and crew chief.
As an aside, it has all the makings of a good one.
Letarte has been a Hendrick “family member” since he was a kid. After he graduated from high school in 1996, he began working at Hendrick as a mechanic and tire specialist for Jeff Gordon.
He later became car chief and then Gordon’s crew chief in 2005. Letarte won 13 races with Gordon from 2005-2010.
He joined Earnhardt Jr. in 2011.
In the last three seasons Earnhardt Jr. has one win, 24 top-five and 54 top-10 finishes. He has qualified for the Chase all three seasons.
As said, 2013 was his best season with Letarte.
With so much to look forward to, it begs the question, why would Letarte leave?
Well, he made a good impression on NBC.
“It wasn’t too long into our first meeting about his potential role on our broadcast team when I realized that Steve is going to be ‘must see TV’, said NBC Executive Producer Sam Flood, who was obviously smitten with Letarte.
However, that only partially explains why a young crew chief, who may be part of a championship team, would give up his career.
Earnhardt Jr. said he heard rumblings of Letarte’s possible departure as early as Charlotte in October. By the last race at Homestead, he knew the deal was imminent.
“Yeah, it was a huge shock at first, and just for me personally, it was difficult,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I knew Steve wanted to spend more time with his family.
“And the more I sat down with him and talked about it, the more it made sense and the more I understood his situation.
“I could put my own selfishness aside and kind of understand what was important to him and how this was good for him.
“You know, he’s a good guy. He deserves these opportunities and he’s earned it.”
Letarte was taken by the enthusiasm and excitement NBC executives displayed over their return to NASCAR in 2015.
“Their excitement and solidarity along with my love for racing fired my decision to move away from the pit box and into the broadcast booth,” Letarte said.
Letarte’s move surprised many, given that crew chiefs and drivers normally move into the broadcast booth when their careers have expired.
Letarte doesn’t appear to be a bit concerned about that. Frankly, if he does a good job – and it’s likely he will – he could remain with NBC through 2024, perhaps longer if the network’s contract with NASCAR is renewed.
But the more pressing question is, how will Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. perform in 2014, which is a season with much promise, but now may be afflicted by a lame duck crew chief.
My response would be, “Junior Nation, fear not.”
I just cannot believe that Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte will not give it their all. I do not believe it is in them to do less.
They may be on the verge of a signature season and I don’t think their desire to reach higher ground will fade a bit.
“I’ve grown a lot as a driver working with Steve, and I feel confident that we can continue to see success,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I want to give Steve a lot of credit for how I’ve changed, and he does have a lot of influence on the performance of the team.
“I’m not really worried about whether we’ll be able to maintain our consistency and keep getting better.
“I really feel like Steve has helped me become much more professional behind the wheel and in handling my responsibilities and communicating and carrying myself as an adult and as a professional.”
Of course a question that may be posed throughout the entire season is, who will replace Letarte?
“You know, I’m not going to make any discussions on who I think we should get in there to replace Steve, but I’m ready to win races,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think that the team is getting really close to being able to accomplish that.
“The way we ran last year was an improvement on the past season, and 2012 was an improvement on 2011.
“I want to keep that going because we’re getting really close.