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Earnhardt Jr. supports Letarte's decision to depart team

<p>Dale Earnhardt Jr. said it was a "huge shock" when he first learned of crew chief Steve Letarte's plans to depart his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team at the end of the 2014 season and join NBC Sports for its coverage of NASCAR next year.</p>

Daytona Beach, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. said it was a "huge shock" when he first learned of crew chief Steve Letarte's plans to depart his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team at the end of the 2014 season and join NBC Sports for its coverage of NASCAR next year.

Earnhardt, who was voted NASCAR's most popular driver by the fans for a record 11th consecutive season this past year, initially heard rumors of Letarte's intent to leave the team and move into the broadcast booth as an analyst for NBC last October when the Sprint Cup Series competed at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"Yeah, I was in shock," Earnhardt said during a press conference on Friday at Daytona International Speedway, where Sprint Cup teams are testing for next month's Daytona 500 and Sprint Unlimited. "I didn't know what was going on. The rumors were kind of sketchy and unclear, and I didn't know the specifics of what he was thinking about doing. 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."

Earnhardt eventually warmed up to the idea of Letarte leaving the team when this upcoming season concludes.

"The more I sat down with him and talked about it, the more it made sense and the more I understood his situation," Earnhardt added. "I could put my own selfishness aside and kind of understand what was important to him and how this was good for him. He's a good guy. He deserves these opportunities, and he's earned it."

On Thursday, NBC Sports Group made the announcement of Letarte's addition to its NASCAR broadcast team.

Starting in 2015, NBC and NBC Sports Network is televising the final 20 Sprint Cup races as well as the last 19 Nationwide Series events of the season. Letarte will join Rick Allen, who is the current announcer of FOX Sport 1's coverage of the Camping World Truck Series, and Jeff Burton, who is driving a partial Sprint Cup schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing this year.

Letarte has worked for Hendrick Motorsports since 1995 when he was 16 years old. He was a crew member on Jeff Gordon's No. 24 team when Gordon won his four Cup championships (1995, '97, '98 and 2001).

Late in the 2005 season, Letarte began his crew chief career when he took over the role for Gordon's team. He guided Gordon to consecutive Chase berths from 2006-10.

Letarte has served as Earnhardt's crew chief since the start of the 2011 season. The pair have one win (June 2012 at Michigan) and have qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship the last three years. Earnhardt finished the 2013 season fifth in the point standings.

"I've lived in the garage area now for 19 years," Letarte said. "No one ever really gets to script the timing of it all and how you have to do it, but I was the guy too young to be in the garage when I was a tire guy and then I was the guy too young to be in the garage as a crew chief. So I thought it was probably why not be too young to go into television. I feel it goes along with my track record."

For now, Earnhardt and Letarte are looking forward to this season, which begins with the Feb. 23 Daytona 500. Earnhardt finished second to teammate and six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in last year's season-opener at Daytona.

"It's definitely going to be emotional and difficult at times, just because we really enjoy working together," Earnhardt said. "But I'm excited about the year. I'm excited about our chances as a team. We've got a great group of guys. Steve is a great crew chief that's going to get us a good opportunity to try to win some races."

Earnhardt, though, does have some concerns about Letarte's replacement for next year.

"I think that my fear is just can we replace Steve," he said. "He'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 seamless. It's going to be a real challenge to do that, and I guess that's my only concern."

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