|Earnhardt: "Personally, it was difficult."|
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., commented this week about crew chief Steve Letarte’s plans to leave the team at the end of the 2014 to work as a television analyst for NBC and NBC Sports Network.
“I heard about it at the second Charlotte race (of last season) and asked him to come over to the bus,” said Earnhardt. “I was in shock. I didn't know what was going on. The rumors were kind of sketchy and unclear, and I didn't know the specifics of what he was thinking about doing. Just (knowing) that he would want to do anything different blew me away, because we were all having such a good time.
“The team was moving forward and the trajectory was great for what we were trying to accomplish. We were getting closer and closer to realizing our potential, so yeah, it was a huge shock at first.
For me personally, it was difficult. (But) the more I sat down with him and talked about it, the more it made sense. I understood his situation, and I could put my own selfishness aside and understand what was important to him and how this was good for him.
“It was hard, because we are such good friends and I really do enjoy working with him a lot. But at the same time, I'm happy for him because it gives him the opportunity to spend time with his family. That's something that's really important to him.
“He’s a good guy. He deserves these opportunities and he's earned it.”
|Letarte "deserves these opportunities."|
With an off season to contemplate the changes ahead, Earnhardt said he has made peace with Letarte’s impending departure and believes his crew chief will play an important role in increasing the popularity of the sport.
“I had a pretty good understanding what his decision was going to be when I left Homestead, so I've had time to wrap my brain around it. I'm excited for him, because I know he's really looking forward to it. You can tell when he talks about it how genuinely enthused he is about the opportunity. The way these races are broadcast and how they're presented to the fans is a big part of how the sport remains healthy. I think that he's going to be incredible in that role. I think that he'll be really good.”
He also said he expects no letdown by Letarte and the No. 88 team this season, saying, “I'm not worried about how focused we may be. He's really good at separating things and keeping things compartmentalized, (and) I know we're going to be fine as far as dedicated (we are) and how we might move through the process of the season.
“I expect us to do nothing less than improve on what we've been doing and steadily keep moving toward our goals. I'm excited about our chances as a team,” he said. “We've got a great group of guys. I think that everybody can buckle down and do their jobs, and I think we can do well. Steve is a great crew chief that's going to get us a good opportunity to try to win some races.
“But it's definitely going to be emotional and difficult at times, just because we really enjoy working together.”
Earnhardt said he has no idea who might replace Letarte atop his pit box in 2015, and is concerned with finding a suitable candidate.
“The one thing that I fear is trying to get a guy in there that's equally as talented. Steve is a guy that's going to be hard to replace. I'm not worried about the specific qualities that Steve has, but (whether) we will we be able to get a guy in there of equal talent, and how well will we be able to make that transition seamless. It's going to be a real challenge to do that, and I guess that's my only concern.
“Steve is a great cheerleader,” he said. “He definitely built up my confidence and changed me; as a race car driver and as a person. Working with him has really helped me grow (and) I think you guys have all seen that over the last several years.
“I think I can carry that with me,” he said. “What I've learned about myself, what I've learned about what my job is and what my responsibility is to the crew chief. Hopefully, I've learned enough to do a better job for the next guy.”
Earnhardt said he “won't make any suggestions at all” about Letarte’s replacement, leaving those decisions to team owner Rick Hendrick and Executive VP/GM Doug Duchardt. “I would love to have input from Chad Knaus and Steve,” he admitted. ”I think that Steve knows what makes this team work. Steve knows how I can be successful and how the individuals within the team can be successful, (so) I think he'd be a good guy to pick at. I hope Doug and Rick will include him in that conversation.
|Junior: "I needed to get my confidence back."|
“I also think it's important that Chad has got a lot of influence, because he knows how well the shop works together, what the culture is in the shop and how a particular guy may mesh in that environment. But I don't really want to have any influence on the choice.
Earnhardt spoke at length about Letarte’s ability to improve his outlook on both the sport, and on life.
“We really took off at the very beginning of our working relationship because he was always positive,” said Earnhardt. “I had beat myself up and gone through such a struggle -- on the racetrack and professionally -- that I was having a hard time. Things just weren't good at all. I couldn't get any traction, couldn't get going in the right direction and didn't know why I didn't run well.
“I couldn't see a problem with the team I was with. I couldn't see a problem with the people I was working with (and) I couldn't see a reason why we were so unsuccessful. When I was younger, I'd lose it behind the wheel every once in a while and argue and fight. (Steve) has helped me become much more professional behind the wheel; handling my responsibilities and communicating and carrying myself as an adult and as a professional.
“Whatever it was that I needed at the time, he was perfect for that role. I needed to get my confidence back. I needed to perform on the racetrack and be able to understand my capabilities and my potential again. We were able to do that, and he was able to help me through that process.
“When I went to work with Steve, he was always real positive, (saying), `We're going to get this figured out, we're going to get it better.’ And when we didn't run well, he didn't ask me why we didn't run well. He said, `We're going to figure out why the car didn't perform and give you a better car. We're going to improve the body or build a new chassis and we're going to do things that can help you drive and race like you want to.
“And then, when he would go and physically do those things… we improved. It took a lot of pressure off of me. I wasn't the reason for all the failures and all the struggles of the past. When we did not run well, he would point to an area where we could improve. We would improve that area and the performance would pick up.
“It was a lot of fun and took the pressure off of me to be able to go to work and see things get better. It was just a great experience. I want to give Steve a lot of credit for how I've changed. He has a lot of influence on the performance of the team, but I feel confident the team is going to be just fine no matter who the crew chief is.
“There's a culture in that shop, and it's a culture of success and winning,” he said. “Anything else is not acceptable. I feel like that will continue after Steve is gone.