Swan song for Earnhardt-Letarte

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ultimately, Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn't begrudge him. But it took a while.

Rumors of crew chief Steve Letarte's possible departure from Hendrick Motorsports for an analyst job at NBC Sports had bloomed from a possibility and then a gnawing inevitability by the end of the 2013 Sprint Cup season, but Earnhardt was still dismayed.

And given the fact he had just completed what he deemed his greatest season at Hendrick Motorsports, he could have easily rued the timing. Fifth in points, his best since 2006. Five top-5s and three runner-up finishes in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and one blown motor at Chicagoland Speedway from arguably his best chance for a championship at NASCAR's highest level. After a decade of fits and starts, NASCAR's most popular driver finally appeared a complete championship contender.

But Earnhardt learned long ago that mastery of timing is not a luxury drivers can expect.

"Things in the sport, no matter how great they are and how much you enjoy them, aren't always going to stay the same," he said. "This is just another situation where that's come true."

Relationships with expiration dates can erode into ineffectiveness. But they can also thrive. Darian Grubb won the 2011 Sprint Cup title having already been informed by driver/owner Tony Stewart that he would be fired after the season. Kevin Harvick won twice in the Chase and finished third in the standings last season, although his departure for Stewart-Haas Racing had been public for more than a year.

That Letarte the family man and Earnhardt the bachelor remain friends and respect the validation each has brought to the other's career will certainly help them through the season.

"Dale and I have had that conversation," Letarte said, "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.

"And I think this is one more thing that could maybe drag us out of frustration, because you know there's a time stamp 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? It would be a shame for what we've built over the last three years, and I don't think it would happen."

That he isn't leaving for another organization should also, Letarte said. And, he stressed, his focus is squarely on Earnhardt this season.

"I'm not working on being a broadcaster in 2014; I'm working on filling a trophy case," said Letarte, who'll begin his broadcast commitment in 2015.

Earnhardt said he would offer no suggestions for filling what Letarte called "the best job in the garage area," leaving the process completely to team owner Rick Hendrick and general manager Doug Duchardt with hopeful input from Letarte and Jimmie Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus.

There is the sense that Earnhardt is both comfortable with the decision-making of an owner who first paired him with Letarte when he was moved from four-time champion Jeff Gordon's team in 2011. There is also the sense that Earnhardt would be comfortable with an internal selection from an organization where employees seem to frequently begin their careers sweeping shop floors -- like Letarte, at age 16 -- and graduated to the pit box.

"I think that Steve knows what makes this team work," Earnhardt said. "Steve knows how I can be successful and how the individuals within the team can be successful.

"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."

No one had meshed with Earnhardt quite like Letarte. Earnhardt acknowledges how his crew chief has influenced "how I've changed."

The grounded Mainer, 34, had provided a calming influence on the free-spirited 39-year-old son and namesake of a NASCAR legend, a driver who had worked with numerous crew chiefs through varying degrees of success through 12 seasons when they were first teamed. There were the rowdy rock-star days with his uncle Tony Eury Sr. -- which yielded a 2004 Daytona 500 win -- then cousin Tony Eury Jr. -- which yielded a fifth-place points finish in 2006, his best until last season, but a working environment so toxic to their personal relationship they once had to be split.

Other pairings at Dale Earnhardt Inc., with Pete Rondeau and then Steve Hmiel, and at Hendrick Motorsports with Lance McGrew, had failed to maximize the output of the two-time Nationwide champion who claimed 15 of his 19 Cup wins by 2004. But the partnership with Letarte, Earnhardt said, will benefit him with whoever is chosen to lead the No. 88 Chevrolet program in 2015.

"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," Earnhardt said. "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."

Maturity is a double-edged proposition for Earnhardt. Professionally, it has put him in his best position to compete for a Sprint Cup championship. And personally, it allows him to accept that Letarte wanting a career that allows him more time with his wife and 8- and 10-year-old children is a noble notion.

Earnhardt first learned of Letarte's options around the Charlotte race weekend last fall and believed his crew chief had decided to leave by the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"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," Earnhardt said. "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."