Few imagined, however, that it would lead to a major shake-up for the whole organization.
After he went winless for a second straight season and stumbled to a 21st-place finish in points, Earnhardt Jr. expected to part ways with crew chief Lance McGrew.
But team owner Rick Hendrick took it a step further – actually two steps further. Two giant steps.
Hendrick made major changes to three of his four teams, swapping the teams and crew chiefs for Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin.
Earnhardt Jr. will work with Gordon’s former team and crew chief Steve Letarte next year while Martin will get crew chief Lance McGrew and Earnhardt Jr.’s team. Gordon will inherit Martin crew chief Alan Gustafson and his team.
It represents a big transition for three veteran drivers that all went winless in 2010. Only Gordon made the Chase, but he slumped to a ninth-place finish with Letarte.
“It’s probably one of the most radical moves I’ve made in my years in racing to do this many at one time,” Hendrick said. “… The proof will be in the performance next year, but I’m excited about making all four teams better.”
Letarte will try to pull Earnhardt Jr. out of a two-year funk. After winning a race and making the Chase in 2008, his first year with Hendrick, Earnhardt Jr. had gone winless and finished 25th and 21st in points the past two seasons.
He had just eight top-10 finishes last year and faded badly after being in Chase contention through the first half of the season. Not only was the approach by he and McGrew not not working, but their performance got worse as the season went along.
Hendrick believes the personable Letarte can get better results out of the 3-year-old Earnhardt Jr.
“Stevie is probably, of all the crew chiefs that we have, more of a people person,” Hendrick said. “He’s very smart, but he’s got a tremendous personality. He knows how to get close to people.
“He and Junior have a relationship … Junior has a lot of respect for Stevie. Stevie has a lot of insight into Junior – he’s mentioned it to me a couple of times in some of the debriefs.
“Dale needs a guy that he can communicate with and has a proven track record and has a really great team.”
Letarte won 10 races in a little more than five years with Gordon, including six in 2007 when Gordon finished second in points.
He knows he will be under tremendous pressure to resurrect the career of the sport’s most popular, and perhaps most important, driver.
“I was excited for the opportunity. I was humbled,” Letarte said. “It’s a task that he has given me that is not a small task, it’s not an insignificant task.
“It’s a very important task for this company, for Dale Jr., for the sport, and I take it as that.”
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