TMS Media Relations | Jan 14, 2014
Living up to the legacy of his legendary father, the road hasn’t been easy for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Fair or not, in all of the 505 races that he’s racked up in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series there is the expectation that when an Earnhardt is in the field, he should be in the hunt for the checkered flag. The fans expect it, voting him NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for 11 consecutive years now, and with him averaging a bit over one victory a year for each of his 15 seasons Junior Nation is wondering when the breakthrough will happen.
Then comes the news Friday that Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr.’s trusted crew chief of the last three years and one of his closest friends, will leave the pit box for the television studio after this season. Letarte has accepted an analyst position for NBC in 2015 when the network replaces ABC/ESPN in the live broadcasts of NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races in the second half of the season.
“It was a huge shock at first, just for me personally. It was difficult,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “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. You know, he's a good guy. He deserves these opportunities and he's earned it.”
When NBC takes over, the network doesn’t start airing races until late June so Letarte is excited with the impact he’ll be able to make at home for his wife and two small children during the first half of the year.
“If I’m going to be unsuccessful at anything I do, being a father shouldn’t be on the list,” Letarte said. “So I’m going to put that one first and this allows me to put that one first. They understood (Hendrick), they’re my family, but they’re my second family.”
So this season will be the last hurrah in the No. 88 garage for this tandem that has compiled one win, 24 top-five finishes and three Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup appearances over the three years they’ve worked together. Not incredible numbers over 106 races, but Dale Jr. will miss Letarte more as a friend than anything else.
“Steve is a great cheerleader and definitely built up my confidence and changed me as a race car driver and as a person,” Earnhardt Jr. said Friday morning before NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway. “Working with him has really helped me grow. I think I can carry that with me, what I've learned about myself and what I've learned about the job and what my job is and what my responsibility is to Steve and the crew chief.”
Though the wins haven’t been there the last three seasons, Earnhardt Jr. says Letarte arrived in his life at the perfect time after just one trip to Victory Lane from 2007-10 and getting the feeling that his career was starting to slide. Despite having only one win in the last three years, Earnhardt Jr. believes Letarte has jumpstarted his team as evidenced by making it into the Chase for the Sprint Cup in all three of those years.
“I'd beat myself up and went through such a struggle on the race track and professionally I was having a hard time up until that point in the couple years before I worked with Steve,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “And things just weren't good at all. I couldn't get any traction, couldn't get anything going in the right direction, and I didn't know why, why I didn't run well.”
It would be special if they could make 2014 their breakout season and get Earnhardt Jr. his first Sprint Cup Series championship.
“What makes this situation unique compared to any driver situation that I can remember is that I’m not going to crew chief for another organization,” Letarte said. “I’m not working on being a broadcaster in 2014, I’m working on filling a trophy case.”
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