Earnhardt Jr., Letarte Will Give Their Best In 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a very good 2013 season and hopes to do better in 2014, his last run with crew chief Steve Letarte.

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.

Letarte served as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief from 2005-2010 and won eight races with the four-time champion.

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.










To Repeat: For Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Time Is Now

daleDale Earnhardt Jr. is at a make-or-break point in his career. That has been said before, but I haven’t said it until now.

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season is Earnhardt Jr.’s time to soar or fall; he has outgrown mediocrity.

He has an impressive list of statistics that include two consecutive NASCAR Nationwide championships in 1998 and 1999, a win at the Daytona 500 in 2004, and 18 career wins in the Cup series that put him in great company with Kevin Harvick, Harry Gant, Neil Bonnett and Geoffrey Bodine.

The number of his wins puts him in a category higher than Kyle Petty (8), Sterling Marlin (10), Ernie Irvan (15) and Curtis Turner (17). And I daresay he hasn’t won the last race of his career, which means he could be in the company of greats Fonty Flock, Buddy Baker and Davey Allison (all 19).

In recent years Earnhardt Jr. has taken much heat from his critics, who are irritated by the kudos bestowed on him when he hasn’t been a factor in Cup, i.e., the Most Popular Driver award for nine consecutive years as of December 1, 2011.

Conspiracy theories abound when Earnhardt Jr. is in the running for a “Lucky Dog” position and a caution is thrown, or he’s in position to win and something else happens to put him in an even better spot. But clearly that isn’t the case.

If NASCAR were trying to get Earnhardt Jr. to win, wouldn’t he have done so by now?

NASCAR, as flawed as it is, does not bend the rules for Earnhardt Jr. or anybody else. And NASCAR is certainly in a pickle when, no matter what it does, it is accused of catering to him.

That’s why it is imperative for Earnhardt Jr. to get back into the business of racing competitively. He had a brilliant outing last year with new crew chief Steve Letarte. Their 2011 season netted four top fives, 12 top tens and one pole, the best stats Earnhardt Jr. has recorded since 2008.

This could finally be the year that Earnhardt Jr. clears the cobwebs out of his head, leaves his heartache about his father behind, has his love life straightened out and has a dedicated focus to racing.

He will be in his sophomore year with Letarte, Jeff Gordon’s former crew chief that posted impressive numbers, in terms of finishes, with Gordon. He just may be the key to getting Earnhardt Jr. completely out of his rut, winning races, and vying for a championship like he tried to do in 2011 in the Chase.

Earnhardt Jr. has aligned himself with media superstar Danica Patrick to run the entire NNS season for his JR Motorsports. Hiring this high-profile driver may rekindle Earnhardt Jr.’s love of all things NASCAR that, hopefully, will carry over into his Cup career.

As for his love life, his impossibly gorgeous date at the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards Banquet is perhaps the key to settling Earnhardt Jr. down and allow him to focus on his Cup career. One can only hope.

Earnhardt Jr. is too talented and too damn good to let his Cup career dwindle away to obscurity at this stage in the game. I believe there are more wins left in the boy and possibly, dare I say it, a possible Cup left to win.

One thing is certain – this season should be the one that determines how Earnhardt Jr.’s career will go from here on out. All the markers are in place for him to succeed on a grand scale.


In 2012 Dale Earnhardt Jr. May Have Best Season With Hendrick Motorsports

Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed his best season to date with Hendrick Motorsports in 2011. He didn't win, but he made the Chase and finished seventh in points. He now has momentum to do even better in 2012.

Probably no other driver in NASCAR receives more scrutiny than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

There’s good reason for that. First, he carries with him a tremendous heritage passed along by his late father Dale, whom many consider to be the best driver in stock car racing history, and his grandfather Ralph.

Second, the family name and the aforementioned heritage have helped make Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR’s most popular driver and most profitable marketing entity.

Even Earnhardt Jr. will tell you that he thinks a big reason for his popularity is his father, what he accomplished and the kind of person and driver he was.

When the elder Earnhardt perished in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, many of his fans passed their loyalty on to his son – who, at the time, was already a two-time Busch Series champion whose career in Cup competition was seemingly on the rise.

His career may have been on the rise then, but it has certainly since leveled off.

After a well-publicized split from Dale Earnhardt Inc. – of which Earnhardt Jr. wanted to wrest control from his stepmother Teresa – young Earnhardt landed at Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season.

This appeared to be a union destined for success. Certainly Earnhardt Jr. thought so, declaring the Hendrick organization the one with which he could win races and championships.

That hasn’t happened. Since ’08 Earnhardt Jr. has won only one race and has made the Chase in only two seasons, 2008 and 2011.

He hasn’t won a Cup race in nearly three and one-half years.

Team owner Rick Hendrick has made crew chief and crew member swaps, along with other changes, to find the formula that will allow Earnhardt Jr. to be successful.

I don’t think there’s any doubt Earnhardt Jr.’s many fans have been disappointed. But they remain intensely loyal. Their man has been voted the National Motorsports Press Association’s Most Popular Driver for nine consecutive years, including 2011.

Then again, there are those have reached the conclusion that Earnhardt Jr. was never the talented driver many thought he was – and that no matter what Hendrick does, he never will be.

That sentiment exists today and has been expressed more than once in the media’s numerous pre-season reports on the 2012 season.

But it’s also been said that some positive things happened for Earnhardt Jr. in 2011; things which indicate he may be on the threshold of a breakout.

If I may toss in my two cents I tend to agree with the latter.

I’ll be blunt. I think Earnhardt Jr. will win at least one race if not more, and again make the Chase. It will come as a big surprise, though, if he is a championship contender.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Earnhardt Jr.’s career has turned for the better. I believe his overall confidence has increased and his focus is stronger than ever.

One big reason for this is Steve Letarte, who became Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief at the start of the 2011 season.

As much as Letarte has done for the overall performance of Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolets, he has done as much with his driver’s outlook, attitude and work ethic.

Letarte has helped make Earnhardt Jr. realize that to be successful he has to work with the team, contribute to its race preparation, be punctual and, above all else, be able to convey the information needed to improve on-track performance.

Earnhardt Jr. has already said he’s learned to give his crew chief the information he needs and always maintain good interaction.

Earnhardt Jr. said his feedback has become more specific and helpful than it once was – generic, trivial and lacking in detail.

Last year, Earnhardt Jr. said, he abandoned his habit of going to his motorhome between practices. He stayed in the hauler and interacted with his team all day.

I think Earnhardt Jr. has adapted to Letarte’s methods and style and approves of both because the results have been decidedly better.

And Earnhardt Jr. has assured us he doesn’t want anything to change – and for good reason.

While he did not win last year, he made the Chase and wound up seventh in points. He earned more top-five and top-10 finishes than he did in either of the prior two seasons.

Earnhardt Jr.’ s detractors will likely say, “So what?” while his supporters will decree that to make the top 10 in points is a worthy accomplishment, no matter the driver.

With that, I will agree.

I think we’ve seen so many positive results from the Earnhardt Jr.-Letarte union they can’t be ignored. I find it difficult to believe that the lessons Earnhardt Jr. learned in 2011 would be forgotten.

I can’t imagine that the interaction and communication between Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte would do nothing but improve in 2012.

And, again, I think Earnhardt Jr. now has more confidence, a better attitude and a stronger focus. For once in quite a while he and his Hendrick team have gained momentum.

As has always been the case at this time of year, we simply don’t know what is going to happen – to Earnhardt Jr., Letarte or anyone else – during the course of a coming season.

We can only predict based upon evidence offered.

I think there is plenty of that to suggest Earnhardt Jr. could, in 2012, enjoy his best season yet with Hendrick Motorsports.

If that happens, the driver who is the most popular in NASCAR will, as he himself said, give his fans what they expect – and deserve.

Earnhardt and Montoya: Can They Make It?

Dale Earnhardt, Jr and Juan Pablo Montoya have the same problem. They get no respect and they’re both in danger of missing the Chase. Eranhardt is sliding back and Montoya is stuck. Will a crew chief change help Montoya? Will Letarte and Jr.start making progress?

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