Dale Earnhardt Jr. will need a new crew chief next season.
Steve Letarte, in his fourth year as crew chief of NASCAR's most popular driver, will leave his current role for an analyst job at NBC Sports beginning in 2015, the network said Thursday. Letarte will be part of a three-man broadcast booth on NBC's coverage of the Sprint Cup Series, joining driver Jeff Burton and play-by-play man Rick Allen.
When USA TODAY Sports attempted to speak with Letarte on Thursday morning at Daytona International Speedway, he ducked inside the team's hauler. A team representative later emerged to say Letarte would not comment Thursday.
But in a statement released through NBC, Letarte said the enthusiasm of network executives helped sway him to make the leap from crew chief to analyst.
"Their excitement, along with my love for racing, solidified my decision to move away from the pit box and into the broadcast booth," Letarte said. "I want to thank (team owner) Rick Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports for the opportunities they have given me over the last 18 years, and I want to reaffirm my commitment to Dale Jr. and the entire 88 team to go win races and challenge for the championship in 2014."
A Hendrick Motorsports spokesperson confirmed Letarte remained under contract for the 2014 season and his role with Earnhardt would not change this year. A representative said Earnhardt was unavailable for comment Thursday.
"(Earnhardt and Letarte) have some of the best chemistry in the garage, and we know they'll build on last season and continue to be a championship-contending team," Hendrick said in a statement. "We don't expect to address the crew chief position until after the season. Everyone with the team is focused on 2014 and committed to having another great year."
Letarte's departure will likely come as a blow to Earnhardt's devoted "Junior Nation" fans, who held the crew chief in high esteem after he reversed the popular driver's slump. Together, Letarte and Earnhardt have made the Chase for the Sprint Cup three consecutive times after the No. 88 team finished outside the top 20 in points for back-to-back seasons.
While the timing of Letarte's decision may come as a surprise, it had become clear in recent years that the 34-year-old had ambitions beyond being a crew chief. Letarte created his own website, made public speaking appearances and had frequent guest spots on NASCAR television and radio coverage.
"You never want to see a talented and all-around quality person like Steve move on, but we understand this is an exciting opportunity for him and his family," Hendrick said. "He has all the tools to be a terrific broadcaster, and I know our fans will enjoy hearing his perspective."
A married father of two children, Letarte began working for Hendrick at 16 and has been on the road since 1996, crew-chiefing for Earnhardt (2011-present) and Jeff Gordon (2005-2010).
The move will make NBC's booth more current than any in memory. When NBC takes over the final 20 races of the season beginning in 2015, Burton will have just completed his final season of driving and Letarte will go from recent crew chief to his new position.
Sam Flood, the executive producer of NBC's NASCAR content, said he's always been impressed by Letarte's analysis.
"(I) feel smarter after hearing him break down the crucial elements of each race," Flood said. "It wasn't long into our first meeting about this potential role on our broadcast team when I realized that Steve is going to be 'Must See TV.' "
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