Is 2014 the last, best chance for NASCAR's most popular driver — for 11 years running — to win a championship?
NASCAR's most popular driver trudged out of the Dover International Speedway garage area, up a set of wooden stairs and across the gravel toward a waiting golf cart.
It was May 2010, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just experienced one of the lowest moments of his career. On the one-year anniversary of his union with crew chief Lance McGrew, Earnhardt qualified 27th and finished 30th. He was a non-factor that day and many other days that season, when he finished outside the top 20 in points for the second consecutive year.
His confidence was never shakier. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, and Earnhardt paused for a painfully long time when a reporter asked what he thought would turn his performance around.
"I don't know," he finally said. "What do you think? I'm lost."
Earnhardt's career seemed to be going nowhere fast.
Then along came Steve Letarte, an energetic crew chief who came on board after that discouraging season and helped Earnhardt completely change his approach, attitude and results on the racetrack.
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With Letarte, Earnhardt has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup for three years in a row. He has never been more consistent — he had a career-high 22 top-10 finishes last year and had more top-fives in 2013 (10) than from 2009 to '11 combined.
"Steve is a great cheerleader and definitely built up my confidence and changed me as a race car driver and as a person," Earnhardt said. "Working with him has really helped me grow. I think you guys have all seen that over the last several years."
There's just one problem: The man who helped give Junior Nation something to cheer about again is on his way out the door.
Despite the No. 88 team performing better than ever, Letarte announced in early January that 2014 would be his last season as a crew chief. This time next year, Letarte will be preparing for his new role as a television analyst for NBC Sports, which will share broadcasting rights with Fox.
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For Earnhardt, this season's underlying theme will be the great unknown — who will replace Letarte — and fear over the change.
Will the new crew chief be able to connect with Earnhardt like Letarte did? Will the driver's performance and confidence slip without Letarte around? And does that make 2014 the last, best chance for Earnhardt — NASCAR's most popular driver for 11 years running — to win a championship?
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Earnhardt acknowledged he was concerned about what would come next.
"I think that my fear is just: 'Can we replace Steve?' " Earnhardt said. "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? It's going to be a real challenge to do that, and I guess that's my only concern."
Hendrick Motorsports has said it does not plan to announce a replacement for Letarte until after the season. The 34-year-old father of two said a major part of his decision to leave had to do with spending more time with his family.
Letarte said he was leaving behind the best job in the garage. But there's no doubt that job is also the most scrutinized. Earnhardt's rabid fans are eager to let their voices be heard when he doesn't run well or the team makes a mistake.
A popular podcast on the driver's personal website features a "Reaction Theatre" where fans can call in and vent.
Letarte has done well handling the pressure of his high-profile position, but the attention will grow if the team gets off to a bad start this year. Fans will say the crew chief's impending departure is a distraction — and they might not have much patience for poor results.
But Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip says the driver and crew chief could be motivated by knowing they have an expiration date on their working relationship.
"I think Letarte will be fine; I'm not sure about Junior," Waltrip said. "I'm not sure how he's going to handle all this.
"I think Sunday comes, you just do your job. What better way to go out than to go out on top? You know you've got a year. There's things you haven't done. So you're really going to try hard, focus hard."
If Earnhardt and Letarte are going to go out on a positive note this season, they'll have to do something they've only done once in their three years together: win.
A victory at Michigan International Speedway in June 2012 stands as Earnhardt's lone win in the past five years. Though he certainly has been close on other occasions with Letarte, they haven't been able to close the deal.
Whether it was running out of gas in the last turn of the Coca-Cola600 in 2011 or not being able to catch teammate Jimmie Johnson last September when he had two fresher tires at Dover, Earnhardt has come tantalizingly close to going to victory lane several times.
Last year, Earnhardt finished second five times — thrice to Johnson.
Earnhardt, who will turn 40 in October, knows time isn't on his side and will be as motivated as ever to win. And it would benefit Letarte to be able to walk into NBC's TV booth next year and say, "I know what it takes to win at this track."
But Waltrip says winning has to become a habit, which it is not for the No. 88.
"It's great to be consistent, but you've got to win," he said. "You've got to figure out how to win. You can get in the habit of where you just don't know how to win."
Letarte said as much in August during an interview with USA TODAY Sports. It was great to keep making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he said then, but at some point the team needed to take chances in order to reach the next level.
As it turned out, Letarte had begun pondering his move to NBC Sports during that time. Earnhardt didn't find out until the Charlotte race weekend in October, when, he said, a rumor floored him.
He called Letarte to the driver's motor home and asked if what he heard was true.
Earnhardt said the news was a huge shock at first, but he realized it was a good move for the crew chief once he thought about it more.
First, he was grateful Letarte didn't leave this year. There was a time when it looked like NBC might start its coverage a year early, but NASCAR and ESPN couldn't come to an agreement for a premature exit.
"Fortunately, we get to work together one more year," Earnhardt said. "I feel almost lucky in that regard, that I get the opportunity to work with him for one more season."
Second, Earnhardt said the confidence Letarte instilled in him would remain long after the crew chief left. He's a different person than he was during those low points four years ago, when it seemed like things would never get better.
"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," he said. "Hopefully I've learned something and learned enough to do a better job for the next guy."
Former crew chief Larry McReynolds, a TV analyst for Fox Sports, isn't convinced.
"I'm a little nervous for Dale Earnhardt Jr.," McReynolds said. "Steve Letarte is his security blanket. That's going to go away. I saw the old Dale Earnhardt Jr. in that media center (talking about Letarte's departure during testing at Daytona International Speedway). Hat down, mumbling. Look at interviews from last year, the hat was up. He was energetic. Excited."
But McReynolds said Letarte would keep up his normal cheerleading and added the team likely would be OK if Earnhardt stayed focused on 2014.
Jeff Gordon, who had Letarte as his crew chief from late 2005 to '10, said he was good at compartmentalizing the commitment to his job and wouldn't let his decision affect the team negatively.
"I'm sure when the news first broke to Junior, it probably was a bit of an adjustment," Gordon said of his Hendrick teammate. "But I feel like they've worked through all the details on how to maintain that level of competition, the momentum that they had from last year, and keep that going through this year."
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Earnhardt has grown close to people in the sport before, only to have an amicable split for reasons not related to competition.
In 1995, Earnhardt was racing Late Models and working with Gary Hargett, whom he described as like a grandfather to him. "A really, really close relationship," he said.
The two spent time together during the week and raced together on the weekends. But Hargett's shop was far away in Union County, N.C.
At the time, Earnhardt was working at his dad's car dealership in Newton — roughly one hour's drive each way.
Eventually, Dale Earnhardt Sr. told his son it was time to move the cars up to Mooresville so the younger Earnhardt could learn more about how to work on them.
But Hargett didn't want to make the long commute, so the two had to split up.
"That was what was good for me and my career, but I was going to have to do it without Gary," Earnhardt said. "That was a real, real difficult choice to make. But that was a lesson I learned early: That things in the sport, no matter how great they are and how much you enjoy them, they aren't always going to stay the same.
"This is just another situation where that's come true."
For his part, Letarte said he thought having a set departure date might allow the team to cherish those last races more.
The inevitable frustrations that set in during a season might be pushed to the side knowing it's the last chance for a win.
"So do you really want to throw away your last trip to Sonoma together?" Letarte said of possible frustration. "Do you want to put personal feelings in the way of trying to win the Brickyard?"
Though the timing might have been a surprise, it had long been clear Letarte was preparing for an eventual career as an analyst of some kind.
Though Earnhardt fans might be disappointed in Letarte's decision, no one doubts how good he'll be on TV. Part of his ability to keep Earnhardt positive has been Letarte's gift of gab, a talent he has turned into motivational speaking engagements and frequent media appearances.
"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," Earnhardt said.
Few crew chiefs have decided to walk away on their own, though McReynolds is one of them. He left Richard Childress Racing to take a job for Fox Sports when that network became a NASCAR broadcast partner in 2001.
And McReynolds' evaluation of Earnhardt and his crew?
"He still has got to win some races," he said. "Nobody knows that more than they do. You can't be a championship contender until you start winning races."
There are 36 more points races for Earnhardt and Letarte together to do just that. Could the driver win multiple races for the first time since 2004? Could he better last year's fifth-place finish in the standings and make a real run at his first Cup title?
Either one of those scenarios would be a happy ending for the No. 88 in its current form — and might soften the blow for what lies ahead.
But no matter who team owner Rick Hendrick chooses to replace Letarte, Earnhardt said he was confident the team would be fine.
"There's a culture in that shop, and it's a culture of success and winning, and anything else is not acceptable," he said. "I feel like that will continue after Steve is gone."
Contributing: Nate Ryan