Dale Earnhardt Jr. losing crew chief to TV booth after this season

jutter@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 9, 2014 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s pairing with crew chief Steve Letarte has produced Earnhardt’s most successful seasons since his move to Hendrick Motorsports six years ago.

The duo now hopes for one last hurrah.

NBC Sports announced Thursday it had hired Letarte as an analyst for its NASCAR telecasts, when the network begins airing Sprint Cup and Nationwide races next year.

Letarte, Earnhardt’s crew chief for the past three seasons, will continue with the No. 88 Chevrolet through this season.

“I’ve always been impressed with Steve Letarte’s interviews, and feel smarter after hearing him break down the crucial elements of each race,” NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said in a statement.

“It wasn’t long into our first meeting about this potential role on our broadcast team when I realized that Steve is going to be ‘must see TV.’ 

Letarte, 34, has worked for Hendrick Motorsports since he was 16. In 1996, after graduating from high school early, Letarte began working with Jeff Gordon’s team as a mechanic and tire specialist.

Letarte became the team’s car chief in 2002 and then crew chief for Gordon in 2005. Letarte became Earnhardt’s crew chief in 2010.

The past three seasons have been the best at HMS for NASCAR’s most popular driver. During that span he has one win, 24 top-five and 54 top-10 finishes, four poles and qualified for the Chase all three years. During his first three seasons with Hendrick, Earnhardt missed the Chase twice.

“As soon as I met with Sam Flood and his team at NBC Sports it became obvious to me how excited they are to be covering NASCAR in 2015 and beyond. Their excitement, along with my love for racing, solidified my decision to move away from the pit box and into the broadcast booth,” Letarte said.

“I want to thank Rick Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports for the opportunities they have given me over the last 18 years, and I want to reaffirm my commitment to Dale Jr. and the entire No. 88 team to go win races and challenge for the championship in 2014.”

The decision to leave the garage caught many in NASCAR off guard.

“He’s a young man that has a lot of talents and is always eager to take that next step in life,” Gordon said. “He has a family. It takes a lot to be a crew chief. It’s quite a commitment, and I think this is a great opportunity for him.”

Former series champion and current ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace said he was “real surprised.”

“For him to come out of a super team and him being so young to get in the (TV) booth right now is a surprise. Generally, it’s been a driver or crew chief who has exhausted their job and television becomes a great extension from then on out,” Wallace said.

“He’s so young right now that it could be he gets in this role and when the (NBC) contract is over, he’s done.”

Letarte will join driver Jeff Burton as an analyst along with race announcer Rick Allen across NBC Sports Group’s coverage of the Cup and Nationwide series on NBC and NBC Sports Network, which will include races, pre- and postrace shows, qualifying, and studio programming.

NBC’s NASCAR deal will run through 2024.

Team owner Rick Hendrick called the new position for Letarte “an exciting opportunity for him and his family.”

“You never want to see a talented and all-around quality person like Steve move on,” Hendrick said. “He has all the tools to be a terrific broadcaster, and I know our fans will enjoy hearing his perspective.”

Hendrick said he did not expect to address a replacement for Letarte until the end of the upcoming season.

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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