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Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he knew well in advance that crew chief Steve Letarte would be leaving Hendrick Motorsports to pursue a broadcasting career at the end of 2014.
Letarte revealed on Thursday that he would end his crew chief duties with Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy after this season to join the NBC broadcast team as an analyst when that network returns to NASCAR in 2015.
“It’s definitely a unique situation, Earnhardt said. “I think I heard about it at the second Charlotte race, and I asked him to come over to the bus. I was in shock. The rumors were kind of sketchy and unclear, and I didn’t know the specifics of what he was thinking about doing — just that he would even want to do anything different blew me away because 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.
“So yeah, it was a huge shock at first. 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.
“So I’ve had time to really wrap my brain around it. 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. It’s something that’s really important to him, and the way these races are broadcast and how they’re presented to the fans is a big part of how the sport remains healthy, and I think that he’s going to be incredible in that role. I think that he’ll be really good.
Earnhardt admitted to some concern about the prospect of losing Letarte’s input, reckoning that he had been responsible for his more competitive form.
“Steve is a great cheerleader and definitely built up my confidence and changed me as a racecar 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.
Earnhardt said he doesn’t expect to have any input into who that may be, however.
“I won’t make any suggestions at all. 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’m not really worried about whether we’ll be able to maintain our consistency and keep getting better. You know, I think — like I said, I think the things that 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 try to maintain that and carry that into the next relationship I have with the next crew chief.