NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. answers questions during a news conference Friday at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is admittedly scared by the daunting task of replacing crew chief Steve Letarte.
He'll leave it up to team owner Rick Hendrick and management at Hendrick Motorsports, and they've got the entire season to find a new crew chief. Letarte was formally introduced Friday as the third and final member of NBC Sports Group's broadcast booth for its NASCAR coverage beginning in 2015.
Earnhardt and Letarte have been paired since 2011. Although the duo has just one win together, they've made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship the past three seasons.
More important, Letarte rebuilt the confidence in NASCAR's most popular driver and instilled a structure around Earnhardt that the driver admits raised his professionalism in the race car.
"The one thing that I fear is just trying to get a guy in there that's equally as talented," Earnhardt said Friday at Daytona International Speedway. "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 that my fear is can we replace Steve?"
Earnhardt brought cousin Tony Eury Jr. with him to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. When that working relationship fractured, Hendrick replaced Eury with longtime company man Lance McGrew.
That combination failed to produce results, so Earnhardt was paired with former Jeff Gordon crew chief Letarte when Hendrick made a massive organizational shake-up shortly after the 2010 season ended.
Letarte's influence on Earnhardt was immediate, so Earnhardt will once again put his trust in Hendrick. He'll also want Letarte and Jimmie Johnson's six-time championship winning crew chief Chad Knaus to be part of the decision making. Knaus works side by side with Earnhardt's crew chief, so Earnhardt believes Knaus needs to have input.
"It was Rick and upper management that decided to put me with Steve," Earnhardt said. "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 again.
"I would love to have input from Chad Knaus and Steve. I think that Steve knows what makes this team work. Steve knows how I can be successful and how the individuals within the team can be successful. 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."
Letarte, meanwhile, finds himself in the unique position of entering his final season atop the pit box under an intensified spotlight to perform. Earnhardt's popularity already brings immense attention and pressure to the No. 88 team, and with Letarte's end-of-year exit looming, fans could be particularly harsh about results.
Letarte believes it will be business as usual.
"I think what makes this situation unique is I'm not going to crew chief for another organization," he said. "I'm not working on being a broadcaster in 2014, I'm working on filling a trophy case, and to do that we have to win our first race."
Letarte and Earnhardt first discussed the NBC opportunity in October, when Earnhardt heard rumors and summoned Letarte to his motorhome to discuss the whispers, and Letarte kept his driver involved as he weighed his decisions.
Ultimately, after 19 years in the garage, it was the ability to spend more time with his two children that made the NBC job more attractive than continuing as a crew chief.
"I don't think I've ever hidden it from anyone that my family has always been my No. 1 priority," Letarte said. "If it comes down to if I'm going to be unsuccessful in anything I do, being a father shouldn't be on the list. So I'm going to put that one first, and this allows me to put that one first and still be in a sport that I love and join a great team."
Earnhardt can respect that.
"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," Earnhardt said. "He deserves these opportunities and he's earned it."