Earnhardt: 'I'm Not Worried About This Season'

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I expect us to do nothing less than improve on what we’ve been doing." (Photo: Jeff Wackerlin)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It all will change, but not now stress Steve Letarte and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Although some will foresee this as a lost season even before it begins, Letarte and Earnhardt said Friday that their team can succeed even with Letarte leaving as crew chief after this season to become an analyst for NBC and NBC Sports Network.

“I’m not worried about this season, how focused we may be,’’ Earnhardt said at Daytona International Speedway. “I expect us to do nothing less than improve on what we’ve been doing.’’

As for next year? Earnhardt admits to worrying about finding a crew chief as talented as Letarte, but Earnhardt stressed that he won’t make any suggestions on who that person should be. He’ll rely on Hendrick Motorsports executives, noting he didn’t know Letarte that well before being paired with him at the beginning of the 2011 season.

Although Earnhardt has only one victory in three seasons with Letarte, Earnhardt has progressed and finished fifth in the points last year - his best finish since 2006. 

While Letarte’s departure seems sudden, Earnhardt talked to him about it last October at Charlotte when he heard rumors about Letarte going to NBC. Earnhardt admitted it was a “huge shock’’ when Letarte confirmed what he was considering. Earnhardt said he “had a pretty good understanding’’ what Letarte would do after the season.

“The more I sat down with him and talked about it, the more it made sense and the more I understood his situation,’’ Earnhardt said. “I could put my own selfishness aside and kind of understand what was important to him and how this was good for him.’’

For Letarte, it came down to family. 

“I've always said ... that my family has always been my No. 1 priority, and it comes down to if I'm going to be unsuccessful in anything I do, being a father shouldn't be on the list,’’ said Letarte, the father of an 8- and 10-year-old. “This allows me to put that one first and still be in a sport that I love and join a great team.’’

While many can appreciate that, some fans will be focused on Letarte’s focus this season.

“Since I was a young kid and became crew chief for Jeff (Gordon in 2005), I've been second‑guessed, and I can assure the group that no one second‑guesses or questions my decisions more than me,’’ Letarte said. “I want to be better the next day than I was yesterday. I tell all my guys this, every day when I get up I look in the mirror and say I'm going to outwork and outperform everyone in my field, and that's my goal.  

 “I don't think that Rick (Hendrick) or Dale or the people that work with me will ever question my effort. I hope they never would.’’

Letarte said that his departure can sharpen the team’s focus since this will be their last together. Letarte said he’ll have extra motivation because this will be his last chance to succeed at each track.

“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,’’ Letarte said. 

“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?’’

That’s what Earnhardt faces this season. Next year, it will be working with someone else.

“It’s a long year and ... a lot of challenges ahead at all these racetracks we’ve got to run at,’’ he said. “We’ve got a lot of things unfinished that we’ve got to accomplish this year.’’               

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