Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday that he was initially shocked by crew chief Steve Letarte’s pending departure, but has come to grips with it and supports it.
Letarte, a Cornish, Maine, native, is leaving Earnhardt and Kendrick Motorsports after this season to join NBC Sports.
Earnhardt heard speculation about the move during last season.
“I heard about it at the second Charlotte race,” Earnhardt said Friday during a press conference at Daytona International Speedway. “Yeah, I was in shock and 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. That he would even want to do anything different blew me away. We were all having such a good time and 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.
“But I had a pretty good understanding, whether he knew or not, what his decision was going to be when I left Homestead (after the 2013 season finale). I’ve had time to wrap my brain around it. It was hard because we’re such good friends and I really enjoy working with him. But at the same time, I’m happy for him because it gives him the opportunity to spend time with his family. The more I sat down and talked with him about it, the more it made sense. I understood his situation better and could put my own selfishness aside and understand what was important to him and how this was good for him. He’s a good guy who deserves these opportunities (because) he’s earned it.”
Earnhardt said he is not bothered by Letarte’s “lame-duck” status.
“I’m not worried about this season and how focused we may be,” Earnhardt said. “I know that Steve is really good at separating things and keeping things compartmentalized. I know we’ll be fine as far as how we’ll compete this year, 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.”
Earnhardt said he will not be involved in finding a new crew chief. He will leave that up to team owner Rick Hendrick, Letarte, team executive Doug Duchardt, six-time championship crew chief Chad Knaus and others on the team.
“I won’t make any suggestions at all,” he said. “Steve knows what makes this team work; he 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 (for suggestions) and hope Doug and Rick would include him in that conversation. It’s important that Chad has a lot of influence because he knows how well the shop works and what the culture is in the shop and how a particular guy may mesh in that environment.”
Earnhardt credited Letarte with turning around his career in 2011.
“We really took off at the beginning of our working relationship because he was always positive,” he said. “I’d just been beating myself up and going through such a struggle on the racetrack and professionally (with crew chief Lance McGrew). I was having a hard time up to that point; things weren’t good at all. I couldn’t get any traction, couldn’t get anything going in the right direction. I didn’t know why, didn’t know why I didn’t run well. I couldn’t see a problem with the team I was with and couldn’t see a problem with the people I was working with. I couldn’t see a reason why we were so unsuccessful. …
“I’ve grown a lot as a driver working with Steve, and I feel confident we can continue to see success. I give him a lot of credit for how I’ve changed, and he has a lot of influence on the performance of the team. I’m not worried about whether we’ll be able to maintain our consistency and keep getting better. The things I’ve learned with Steve and what he’s taught me and how I’ve grown as a person and as a driver. … I’ll be able to maintain that and carry that into the next relationship I have with the next crew chief.”