Dale Earnhardt Jr. is facing another crew chief change at the end of the 2014 Sprint Cup season. In early January, current crew chief, Steve Letarte, announced he will be leaving to work for NBC. His decision comes at a critical juncture in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career.
No one has been under the microscope more than NASCAR's most famous son. Raised around the lights of the racetrack, Junior has become the most polarizing figure in racing today. People either love him or hate him. His fans have made him the winner of all the most popular racer awards and his detractors constantly point to his winning column, or lack of one.
Truthfully, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has shown remarkable improvements under the leadership of Steve Letarte. Powered by the Hendrick Motorsports team, the number 88 car has landed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup for three consecutive years. Letarte has been the cheerleader and confidence builder needed to help the team excel.
In 2010, Junior was at an all time low. Coming off a hugely disappointing season, it was clear that his one year relationship with then crew chief, Lance McGrew, had not worked. And following the highly publicized feud with his cousin turned crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., his career seemed on the ropes. So instead of choosing his own crew chief, Dale Earnhardt Jr. handed over the reigns to racing guru Rick Hendrick.
The decision to go with Steve Letarte was based on his high energy and youth. Though they have not produced as many wins as fans would like, number 88 has been successful in accumulating points. In the current world of NASCAR, drivers are looking to get points and make a run at the Sprint Cup. 2014 will be the last chance for Junior and Letarte to prove they can do it.
Hendrick will be responsible for choosing the new crew chief again. "I won't make any suggestions at all," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. But fans shouldn't expect a decision anytime soon. The challenge of finding the right crew chief is a difficult one that takes time. With the season ready to start up at Daytona, the team is focused on one thing, winning.
"I'm ready to win races," said Earnhardt, who went winless last season even though he had his best finish since 2006. "I think that the team is getting really close to being able to accomplish that."
Whatever happens, one thing is clear. The crew chief change is sure to affect Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his team's chase for the Sprint Cup. He's just hoping it works as motivation and not a distraction.