Opinion: Lessons Will Help Earnhardt Move Forward
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on January 10, 2014 | 3:33 P.M. EST
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has one final season with crew chief Steve Letarte before taking those lessons with him the rest of his career. (Photo: Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It will go by quick this year. When it’s complete, maybe the anxiety felt now will be justified. Then again, it’s easy to presume the worst when looking toward the future.
So it is with the announcement that this will be Steve Letarte’s final season as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief. The man whose encouraging words revitalized Earnhardt moves to the broadcast booth next season for NBC and the NBC Sports Network.
That someone else will be in Earnhardt’s ear next year is unnerving for his fans. Earnhardt admits that his "fear is just, 'Can we replace Steve?' "
But maybe it’s time for Earnhardt and Letarte to move on. This will be their fourth season together - the equivalent of going to college. Letarte has provided Earnhardt with a foundation to succeed. After this season, it will be Earnhardt’s turn to take Letarte’s lessons and carry them through the rest of his career.
Although they have only one Sprint Cup win together the past three seasons, Earnhardt no longer is the droopy, despondent driver he once was before Letarte but now, carries his head high.
"When I went to work with Steve, he was just always real positive, (saying) 'We’re going to get this figured out, we’re going to get it better,' " Earnhardt said. "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, we’re going to give you a better car and 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.' "
Letarte did. Earnhardt’s number of top-10 finishes increased from 12 that first season with Letarte to 20 the following year and 22 this past season. Earnhardt’s fifth-place finish in the points was his best result since 2006.
Earnhardt trusts Letarte and knows the car will do what Letarte has set it up to do. That allows Earnhardt to attack corners more often instead of just trying to hold on. Letarte also taught Earnhardt about being a team member. That meant taking responsibility, putting forth the work needed to succeed and spending time with the crew instead of hiding in his motorhome.
Letarte also expected more out of Earnhardt when they debriefed. For the team to improve, Earnhardt had to be better at telling them what the car was doing. Without that input, their chances of success dimmed.
"He’s helped me become much more professional behind the wheel in handling my responsibilities, and communicating and carrying myself as an adult and as a professional," Earnhardt said.
It’s a much different driver from the one once known for rants on the radio that had car owner Rick Hendrick saying publicly that Earnhardt needed to provide better feedback and in a calmer fashion. Letarte has ensured that.
"Whatever it was that I needed at the time, he was perfect for that role," Earnhardt said of Letarte.
Even for all that Letarte has done, some will argue that his decision to leave after this season will stunt Earnhardt’s success. With Earnhardt turning 40 in October, he has fewer chances for a championship than many drivers. That doesn’t mean he can’t win a championship - Dale Jarrett was 42 years old when he won the 1999 crown and Tony Stewart was 40 when he won the 2011 crown. It just means each chance missed becomes more painful.
Earnhardt doesn’t see it that way.
"I’m not really worried about whether we’ll be able to maintain our consistency and keep getting better," Earnhardt said. "There’s part of me that’s kind of ready to accept the challenge and see how the change affects the team. I think I’ve learned a lot and it’s going to be a challenge ... one I’m ready to accept."
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.