DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.–Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. survive the departure his crew chief with his newfound confidence intact?
In a question-and-answer session with reporters Friday at Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt seemed less worried about crew chief Steve Letarte’s lame-duck status this season and more concerned about the difficulty of finding a successor when Letarte departs the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage for the NBC broadcast booth in 2015.
“I think the one thing that I fear is just trying to get a guy in there that’s equally as talented,” said Earnhardt, who will turn 40 Oct. 10. “Steve is a great cheerleader and 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. I think you guys have all seen that over the last several years.
“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. I think I can carry that with me–hopefully I can at this age. Hopefully, I’ve learned something and learned enough to do a better job for the next guy.”
Trying to put the best face on the transition and conceding that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to find a new crew chief who combines the ebullience, knowledge and work ethic of Letarte, Earnhardt hopes to get a successor who is long on talent.
“I think that my fear is just ‘Can we replace Steve?'” Earnhardt said. “It’s a guy that’s going to be hard to replace. I’m not worried about the specific qualities that Steve has, but just 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.”
Earnhardt, however, said he would not put forth suggestions for a new hire, preferring to leave the personnel decision to team owner Rick Hendrick and general manager Doug Duchardt, with input from Letarte and chief Chad Knaus, six-time champion crew chief for Jimmie Johnson. Letarte and Knaus work closely together in the same shop at Hendrick Motorsports.
“I won’t make any suggestions at all,” Earnhardt said. “I will leave that up to Rick, Doug. I would love to have input from Chad Knaus and Steve. 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. I think he’d be a good guy to sort of pick at and hope that Doug and Rick would include him in that conversation at times.
“I think it’s important that Chad has got a lot of influence, because he knows how well the shop works together and what the culture is in the shop and how a guy, a particular guy, may mesh in that environment. But I don’t really want to have any influence on the choice.”
In a press conference introducing him as a member of the NBC team starting in 2015 when the network begins its new contract as a NASCAR broadcast partner, Letarte echoed Earnhardt’s confidence that they can work through 2014 without distraction.
“I think that this is a very different situation, because I’m not working on being a broadcaster in 2014,” Letarte said. “I’m working on filling a trophy case, and to do that we have to win our first race. Dale and I have had that conversation, and he said it the best, that this will give us an opportunity to really cherish those races and those opportunities, and I think, if anything, it might allow us to be better at our jobs because frustration sets in for everyone in the garage area. It’s a tough sport. If it doesn’t set in, you don’t care enough about your job.
“And I think this is one more thing that could maybe drag us out of frustration, because you know there’s a timestamp on the end of it. So do you really want to throw away your last trip to Sonoma together? Do you want to put personal feelings in the way of trying to win the Brickyard? I think to do that would really be a shame for what we’ve built over the last three years, and I don’t think it would happen.”