Driver trusts owner Rick Hendrick, General Manager Doug Duchardt to replace Steve Letarte with winner
The only certainty about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s next crew chief after Steve Letarte?
He won't be chosen by the driver.
"I won't make any suggestions at all," Earnhardt said in putting the decision in the hands of Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick and general manager Doug Duchardt.
"I don't really want to have any influence on the choice. It was Rick and upper management that decided to put me with Steve. I didn't know how that was going to work out, but I just wanted to trust their judgment, and that's what I'm going to do."
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While NASCAR's most popular driver won't be speculating on the No. 88's field general after Letarte leaves for an NBC analyst gig next year, the impending vacancy will draw plenty of conjecture for a position Hendrick has indicated won't be announced until after the 2014 Sprint Cup season.
It took five months in 2009 for Hendrick to name Lance McGrew as the replacement for Tony Eury Jr. as No.88 crew chief, and this search could be more deliberate.
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"I don't think they're in any hurry," Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip said. "Hendrick is good about promoting from within. Maybe there are crew chiefs on other teams that would like to have that job. We won't know for a while.
"It wouldn't surprise me if it was someone we didn't expect. It almost has to be."
The high-profile scrutiny might make it as likely an unknown will take the job as a veteran, but there are traits Earnhardt's next crew chief likely will possess.
Based on the success of fastidious but gregarious Letarte, who has guided Earnhardt to three consecutive Chase for the Sprint Cup appearances while becoming the driver's good friend, the best candidates will feature a blend of discipline and cheerleading.
"It'll be someone who will keep Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his place and pumped up," said Larry McReynolds, who won the 1998 Daytona 500 as the crew chief for Earnhardt's late father. "Steve Letarte has been perfect for that. Much to the surprise of a lot of people, Earnhardt Jr.'s dad was very similar. His dad needed that cheerleader who he knew was riding in that car with him."
Said ESPN analyst Andy Petree, who guided Dale Earnhardt to two of his seven championships, "It's going to be hard to find anyone who suits (Earnhardt Jr.) better than Steve Letarte. There are some really good young guys I'm really impressed with that have bright futures in that role. But whether they'd be interested in Earnhardt Jr.'s position, that's like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, no matter where you're coming from."
Hendrick has a philosophy of homegrown crew chiefs; Letarte, Chad Knaus (Jimmie Johnson) and Alan Gustafson (Jeff Gordon) each started in minor roles at Hendrick before their current jobs.
That might put the spotlight on Ron Malec, the longtime car chief for Johnson's No. 48.
Greg Ives, Johnson's former engineer who became a Nationwide Series crew chief last year at JR Motorsports (co-owned by Earnhardt and Hendrick), also could be mentioned.
Earnhardt, who has four victories in nine seasons since a career-best six in 2004, has revealed only one criteria for the post-Letarte era.
"I'm ready to win races," said Earnhardt, who was winless last season despite ranking fifth in points, his best showing since 2006. "I think that the team is getting really close to being able to accomplish that.
"Whoever we bring in, I hope they're ready to keep moving in that direction."
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