By Staff – One of the biggest preseason NASCAR news stories to be released was that of Hendrick combo Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte no longer working together in 2015. Letarte has decided to move from the pit box to the broadcasting booth. Our Popular Speed Development Journalists weighed in on this announcement and provided some thoughts on a replacement crew chief.
Stephanie Adair – The news of Steve Letarte departing from the No.88 team to pursue a TV broadcasting career at NBCSN was surprising. He and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been more competitive each year that they have been together. In addition, the driver and crew chief pairing has been beneficial for Earnhardt Jr. both in his professional and personal life. Knowing that, I did not want to see Letarte leave the team. However, I understand and respect that the veteran crew chief wanted to focus more on his family.
Letarte has prepared Earnhardt Jr. for another crew chief and I think the driver of the No. 88 will do just fine transitioning. Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick will do a good job at choosing the right match, as he has proven in the past.
Who is my pick for crew chief of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver in 2015? I feel that the car chief of the No. 48 team, Ron Malec, is the best candidate for the job. Malec is an original crewmember of the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup championship winning team. After 12 years of experience with one of the most successful teams in NASCAR, he is certainly equipped try his hand at leading the No. 88 team to their first championship.
Katie Copple – When I heard that Steve Letarte would be moving to the broadcast booth in 2015, I was quite surprised. Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. are the perfect pair and quite frankly, not having him on top of the pit box will be tough on the No.88 team. He has brought the “Most Popular Driver” out of a slump and even helped him break his four-year winless streak in 2012 with the victory in Michigan. Earnhardt had one of the best seasons of his career last year and was easily the most consistent driver in the field.
Letarte will definitely be missed in 2015 and Hendrick Motorsports will need to start the search early for a new crew chief. With Earnhardt’s popularity, whomever they choose will have to be able to handle that pressure and constant scrutiny from Junior Nation. In my opinion, putting someone new on top of the box would actually be beneficial for the organization and the team.
Much like Stewart-Haas Racing is doing with Kurt Busch in 2014, promoting someone from within the organization to become Earnhardt’s crew chief would be their best bet for success. With brilliant minds like Chad Knaus, Alan Gustafson and Kenny Francis already at the organization, bringing up someone new to learn from the best in NASCAR and also from Earnhardt himself might just be the best choice for the No.88 team in 2015.
Christie Mack – Just three seasons ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was playing a game of crew chief musical chairs. When Steve Letarte landed on top of Earnhardt’s pit box, many had their doubts about how it would end. The outcome has been Earnhardt’s best partnership since arriving at Hendrick Motorsports. Now that Letarte is said to be leaving in 2015, I do not think the effect will be drastic. Earnhardt has found his place again. He is competitive race after race and is gaining back the confidence he had lost in years past. If the 2014 season keeps his confidence up, a new crew chief should not change his performance drastically.
As for who will replace Letarte, I am still unsure. The most likely candidates will be someone familiar with Hendrick Motorsports. Alan Gustafson could be moved from Gordon to Earnhardt since Gordon is reaching the end of his career. Darian Grubb is another possibility. He’s been with Hendrick before and could easily handle the pressures of working with the “Most Popular Driver.” My choice, however, is Tony Eury Jr. I know it is farfetched but the duo has had plenty of success in the past. Now that Earnhardt is more comfortable in the new car and has more confidence on the track, an old pairing might just be the ticket to an even more successful 2015.
Kristen Schneider – Steve Letarte’s 2015 departure from the No. 88 team was a huge surprise to me, yet I feel that it can only aid Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his crew this coming season. With the last hurrah underway, Earnhardt will attempt to make it one worth remembering. The connection he’s had with Letarte when they first paired up was close to career-changing. Fans and media members alike saw something click; not only was there a spark, but also friendship. The No. 88 team will flourish this year. Though I don’t have a specific person in mind, Letarte’s replacement must have the ability to bond with NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. That is the key to joining that Hendrick Motorsports team and becoming successful. I wish Letarte the best in his new endeavor.
Jason Schultz – Steve Letarte’s departure following this season will be a huge test for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team. Letarte has built this team into one capable of winning a championship. With his leadership, skills and expertise leaving, it will be up to Earnhardt Jr. and his team to use what Letarte has taught them to continue improving. There is no perfect choice to fill Letarte’s shoes, but maybe a shakeup at Hendrick Motorsports will lead to a new leader emerging for the No. 88 team.