Dale Earnhardt Jr. is without a doubt the most popular driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He was winless in 2013, but he was competitive and finished the season fifth in the final Sprint Cup standings. Like many teams Earnhardt and his Hendrick Motorsports team came to Daytona International Speedway looking forward to a new season and a new opportunity to win races and much more. Earnhardt though was thrown a bit a wrench, pun intended, when his crew chief Steve Letarte announced this week that the 2014 season will be his last as a crew chief; he will head to the TV booth with NBC Sports in 2015 joining former driver Jeff Burton.
Earnhardt said he was surprised by the decision and he talked about more during his first media session of 2014 Friday at Daytona International Speedway. Below is the transcript from that session.
The moderator: We welcome now Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet. Dale, welcome back to Daytona, 2014 season. Talk to us a little bit about your thoughts coming into a new season and what it feels like to be back at Daytona.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Yeah, I wish the weather would straighten out so we could get out on the track, but otherwise we're just kind of hanging out.
I think I've been in the shop a little bit this off‑season. Looks like everybody is geared up to get going and get out of the shop and get back to the racetrack and do some testing and just get back into the groove and get back in the car and get back with your guys and working on trying to improve what you're doing.
There's still a little bit of off‑season left, and we're definitely going to make the most out of January, as we always do, before we have to really get to work. But everybody seems to be pretty excited about getting the year going.
Q. Obviously with Steve just leaving, can you talk about your thoughts, and how long have you known, and what you think about the situation?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Yeah, it's definitely a unique situation. He actually included me in on the discussion before the end of last year, and I had a pretty good understanding, whether he knew or not, what he was going to do. I had a pretty good understanding what his decision was going to be when I left Homestead.
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 ‑‑ I think that he'll be really good.
I'm excited for him because I know he's really looking forward to it. You can tell when he talks about it how genuinely enthused he is about the opportunity.
And at the same time, you know, I'm not worried about this season and how focused we may be. I know that he's really good at separating things and keeping things compartmentalized, as Jeff Gordon likes to say about Steve.
I know that we're going to be fine as far as how we'll compete this year and how dedicated and how we might move through the process of the season. I expect us to do nothing less than improve on what we've been doing and steadily keep moving toward our goals.
But it's definitely going to be emotional and difficult at times, just because we really enjoy working together. But I'm excited about the year. I'm excited about our chances as a team. We've got a great group of guys. Steve is a great crew chief that's going to get us a good opportunity to try to win some races.
And I think that the team, just based on the personalities and how well we all get along and mesh and how much fun we really had last year, I think that everybody can buckle down and do their jobs, and I think we can do well.
Q. What do you fear the most about losing Steve as a crew chief? In other words, kind of what are such his strengths that you're like, man, how are we going to do this without him?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Yeah, I think the one thing that I fear is just trying to get a guy in there that's equally as talented. I think ‑‑ I'm not really ‑‑ Steve is a great cheerleader and definitely built up my confidence and changed me as a race car 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.
I think I can carry that with me, what I've learned about myself and what I've learned about the job and what my job is and what my responsibility is to Steve and the crew chief. I think I can carry that with me ‑ hopefully I can at this age. Hopefully I've learned something and learned enough to do a better job for the next guy.
I think that my fear is just can we replace Steve. It's a guy that's going to be hard to replace. I'm not worried about the specific qualities that Steve has, but just will we be able to get a guy in there of equal talent, and how well will we be able to make that transition seamless. It's going to be a real challenge to do that, and I guess that's my only concern.
Q. You mentioned that you've had several months now to wrap your head around this and kind of come to terms with it, but when he first sat you down maybe sometime last fall or something and was like, hey, not even saying that he was going to do it but there was a possibility, was it like a gut punch to you? Were you taken by surprise? What was your initial reaction?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: I think I heard about it at the Charlotte race, the second Charlotte race, and I asked him to come over to the bus. I usually don't take my bus to Charlotte, but I had it there. Yeah, I was in shock. I didn't know what was going on. I thought it might be something ‑‑ I didn't know what exactly ‑‑ 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, and the more ‑‑ just for me personally, it was difficult. And 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.
You know, he's a good guy. He deserves these opportunities and he's earned it.
Q. At this stage in your career how much input do you want to have on who your next crew chief is? Will you make suggestions? Will you have say in the final decision? How will that work?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 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 teamwork. 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 think it's important that Chad has got a lot of influence because he knows how well the shop works together and what the culture is in the shop and how a guy, a particular guy may mesh in that environment.
But I don't really want to have any influence on the choice. I want ‑‑ I think that those guys are the ones that can make the choice and have the most success with that decision. I'll just kind of ‑‑ it was Rick and upper management that decided to put me with Steve. I didn't know how that was going to work out. I didn't know much about Steve. I knew him and Jeff were not really clicking at that point in time in their careers, so I didn't know exactly what was going to happen, but I just wanted to trust their judgment, and that's what I'm going to do.
Q. You touched upon the cheerleading thing about Steve and how he made you a better driver. Could you expand on just why specifically you connected with him so well over the last few years?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Yeah, I think the reason why we got off on such a ‑‑ we really took off at the very beginning of our working relationship because he was always positive. I'd just been ‑‑ I'd beat myself up and went through such a struggle on the racetrack and professionally I was having a hard time up until that point in the couple years before I worked with Steve. And things just weren't good at all. I couldn't get any traction, couldn't get anything going in the right direction, and I didn't know why, why I didn't run well. I couldn't see a problem with the team I was with. I couldn't see a problem with the people I was working with. I couldn't see a reason why we were so unsuccessful.
When I went to work with Steve he was just always real positive, we're going to get this figured out, we're going to get it better, and 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.
And then when we would go and physically do those things, build a new car or cut the side off of a car and take it back to the racetrack, we improved. It took a lot of pressure off of me as I wasn't the reason for all the failures and all the struggles in the past. When we would not run well, he could point to an area where we could improve, and we would improve that area and the performance would pick up.
It was a lot of fun, take the pressure off of me and just be able to go to work and see things change and get better. That was just a great experience.
Q. You said you were happy for Steve. As much as you were, with the momentum that you guys were apparently coming into the season with, was it tough just to think, oh, man, why now?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Not really. I had a lesson back when I raced late models, I was working with Gary Hargett, and Gary Hargett and I worked together in '94, '95, and he became kind of like a grandfather to me, really, really, really close relationship. I spent a lot of time with him throughout the week and throughout the weekend, and when we went to the racetrack we went together. It was just a great relationship.
And there was a day where I had an opportunity to move my cars from his shop in Union County up to my shop to be able to work on them. It was an hour drive. And at that time I was working at the dealership in Newton, and then I would drive to Gary's at the South Carolina line and work on my car on Wednesday nights and then I'd drive back down on Fridays and go racing at Florence and Myrtle Beach on Friday and Saturdays, and it was a lot of driving around.
My father said, all right, we're going to bring your cars up here and I'll give you some space to work on them and you can keep them up here and learn how to build these cars and fix them, and I was just missing out on that experience being able to work on my own cars and understand them.
But I had to take it away from Gary, and I wanted him to come up to the shop and work, and he didn't want to drive an hour up there to work, so he decided he wasn't going to do that, so he had to split up. I was taking the cars and moving the cars up to Mooresville because that was what was good for me and my career, but I was going to have to do it without Gary.
And that was a real, real difficult choice to make. That was just a lesson I learned early, that things in the sport, no matter how great they are and how much you enjoy them, aren't always going to stay the same. This is just another situation where that's come true.
Q. What do you imagine life will be like without Steve as your crew chief beyond this season? And how has your time with him prepared you for the next step?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Yeah, I think that Steve ‑‑ I've grown a lot as a driver working with Steve, and I feel confident that we can continue to see success.
I want to give Steve a lot of credit for how I've changed, and he does have a lot of influence on the performance of the team, but I feel confident the team is going to be just fine no matter who the crew chief is. There's a culture in that shop, and it's a culture of success and winning, and anything else is not acceptable. I feel like that will continue after Steve is gone.
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.
I really feel like 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.
That was a bit of a problem for me when I was younger. I'd kind of lose it behind the wheel every once in a while and argue and fight. We definitely have moved quite a ways away from that. There's part of me that's kind of ready to accept the challenge and see how the change affects the team and how ‑‑ it's great that we've got a year to figure it out and find out who can come in there and take his place.
It's going to be ‑‑ it's not going to be easy. The easiest thing would be for us to not have to make any changes, but that's not the way life is. We'll face it head‑on. But yeah, I think I've learned a lot, and it's going to be a challenge and a good challenge, one I'm ready to accept, to try to create a new relationship with a new crew chief. I'm sure that it's nothing to worry about.
Q. So he was like your college experience, since you didn't go to college?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: I suppose, yeah.
Q. Dale, Steve kind of mentioned that this year is going to feel a little bit like this is my last chance to win the Daytona 500 with him and different things like that. If you were to be completely honest, do you feel like maybe it's ‑‑ I don't know if there's going to be a different approach, if that's the right word, but could you talk about how this season is going to be knowing this is kind of the last ‑‑
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Yeah, we talked about that, and you know, your first reaction is to get really disappointed and go, man, you know, this is the last year and trudge through it and be sad. But after you think about it for a while, it could have easily been a situation where he took a job in broadcasting this year and we would have left Homestead not knowing whether we would even work together again.
Fortunately we get to work together one more year. Our friendship and I think how we enjoy working together excites us that we have that opportunity, and we're enthused that we have the opportunity to go through this process for one more season and that it wasn't cut shorter, and he gets to get it all out of his system, and I get to enjoy working with him for another year.
I feel almost lucky in that regard that I get the opportunity to work with him for one more season. He's not going to work for another driver or another team, so it's kind of his last hurrah, and hopefully he never has to come back to that job again and his broadcasting career takes him on into the rest of his life. And I think it will. I think he's going to be fantastic.
Q. Not just you but any driver, I guess, I would assume your crew chief needs change throughout your career. I know you said you sort of needed a Gary Hargett figure when you started, but what do you need in the middle part of your career and the latter part of your career?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: I guess. I mean, when I got hooked up with Steve, we became pretty good buddies. He fit the role. Whatever it was that I needed at the time, he was perfect for that role. You know, I needed to get my confidence back. I needed to perform on the racetrack to be able to see that and to be able to understand my capabilities and my potential again. And we were able to do that, and he was able to help me through that process.
You know, like I said, I'm not going to make any discussions on who I think we should get in there to replace Steve, but I'm ready to win races. I think that the team is getting really close to being able to accomplish that. The way we ran last year was an improvement on the past season, and 2012 was an improvement on 2011. I want to keep that going because we're getting really close.
You know, whoever we bring in and whatever decisions that Rick and everybody makes in that regard, I hope they're ready to keep moving in that direction. I hope that we're able to maintain the integrity of the team because I think all the guys that I got working with me are the best group in the garage, and we'll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it.
But we've got a whole 'nother season to go through. It's a long year and a lot of things that ‑‑ a lot of challenges ahead at all these racetracks we've got to run at, and we've got a lot of things unfinished that we've got to accomplish this year.
A lot of things going on. A lot of things to think about. We've got ‑‑ I'm confident in Hendrick Motorsports to be able to juggle that, for us to be able to focus on this season and try to run well and also be able to hunt for the guy that's going to replace Steve. I feel confident that HMS can get it all done.
The moderator: Dale, thank you for your time today. Good luck in 2014.