Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief is leaving to become a TV analyst after the 2014 season.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. first caught wind of an alarming rumor last October at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Crew chief Steve Letarte was thinking about leaving the team, Earnhardt heard -- and it came as a "huge shock" to the driver.
"I didn't know the specifics of what he was thinking about doing, (but) just that he would even want to do anything different blew me away," Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt summoned Letarte to the driver's motorhome, where he learned more details about what Letarte was considering: A surprising move to quit crew-chiefing and instead become a television analyst for NBC Sports' NASCAR broadcasts beginning in 2015.
Before Letarte ever made his final decision, which was announced Thursday, Earnhardt had a pretty good idea of what it was going to be.
"For me personally, it was difficult," Earnhardt said of his initial reaction. "But the more I sat down with him and talked about it, the more it made sense and the more I understood his situation – and I could put my own selfishness aside and kind of understand what was important to him and how this was good for him."
Letarte, 34, will crew chief for one more season with Earnhardt and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team, then step into the broadcast booth alongside driver Jeff Burton and play-by-play announcer Rick Allen.
It was a family-based decision first, Letarte said Friday during a news conference at Daytona International Speedway. With two children at home – ages 8 and 10 – Letarte will get off the road for half the year (NBC has the final 20 races of the season beginning in 2015) and won't be required to pull long shifts in an office during the week.
"If I'm going to be unsuccessful in anything I do, being a father shouldn't be on the list," Letarte said.
A secondary reason? Letarte's admittedly "colorful personality" will translate well to TV and he's been angling toward a media job for the last few years.
"I like to talk about the sport," he said. "I like to talk to people."
Earnhardt understands how good Letarte could be on TV – and why having a solid booth is important for the sport as a whole. He said the crew chief would be "incredible in that role."
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Still, NASCAR's most popular driver will lose the man who resurrected his career after consecutive seasons outside the top 20 in points. Earnhardt was lost in the racing wilderness until Letarte came along with his buoyant energy.
Suddenly, Earnhardt recalled Friday, the pressure was off of him. Letarte wouldn't blame the driver after a bad race, but instead tried to figure out why the car didn't perform – and fix it. Inevitably, Earnhardt said, the team got better together.
Now, after three straight Chase for the Sprint Cup appearances and Earnhardt's most consistent season ever (a career-high 22 top-10 finishes), the crew chief has announced his plans to leave. Earnhardt will have to start over with someone new in 2015, building the relationship again and hoping it turns out as well as his union with Letarte did.
"The one thing that I fear is just trying to get a guy in there that's equally as talented," Earnhardt said. "It's a guy that's going to be hard to replace."
But Earnhardt said he doesn't want to have any input into the selection of his new crew chief, which Letarte called "the best job in the garage." Team owner Rick Hendrick and executive Doug Duchardt were among those who came up with the Letarte/Earnhardt pairing. Along with input from Chad Knaus and Letarte, Earnhardt wants to see if they can create magic again (Hendrick said an announcement would come after the season).
"I just wanted to trust their judgment (last time), and that's what I'm going to do," Earnhardt said.
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