January 28th, 2015
When news broke in January that Steve Letarte was leaving Hendrick Motorsports for the television booth it was anarchy. Fans and media questioned why would they announce this before the season began? Who would replace him? Then they both assumed that Earnhardt would not perform during this lame duck season.
The reality is not only was it a good move to start with, but the sense of urgency to win with Letarte has led to Earnhardt scoring two wins, locking himself into the Chase, and being a contender week in and week out.
Through 20 races, Earnhardt has those two wins, the first time since 2004 he has won more than once. Going a step further, he had two wins between 2008 and 2013 altogether. This season he has nine top-10 finishes, which has him one behind what he did last year, with 16 races to go. If he can get 11 or more top-5s, that will be the first time he did that since 2004.
Going behind the now, announcing Letarte leaving in January allowed Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Steve Letarte to be able to select the replacement crew chief. Sure they could have waited until the end of the year, but they’ve been able to take their time, and find who they believe is the best candidate.
That candidate is Greg Ives, who at 34 years old is just getting started as a crew chief in NASCAR. He worked wonders with Regan Smith last season (winning twice) and Chase Elliott (winning three times) this season in the Nationwide Series as crew chief. Prior to that he was the race engineer for Jimmie Johnson during his five in a row championship run.
While some could argue he should have been left with Elliott to form a Jeff Gordon/Ray Evernham or Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus like bond, it’s not hard to argue going with Earnhardt now. At age 39. Earnhardt has only down to go from here, so he and Hendrick had better make the most of him while they can.
Elliott, on the flipside, is young enough and talented enough that they can find another crew chief to step up and go through the growing pains. I just hope that person isn’t Lance McGrew, who has some talent as a crew chief, but hasn’t really done much with the talent he’s been given in the driver seat. Because he’s worked the past two years on and off with Elliott, I wouldn’t be surprised that’s where they go.
Ives will be a great resource for Earnhardt and will be able to slip into the role right away without many growing pains. He also knows what it takes to win a championship and the Hendrick way, which will prove fruitful for Earnhardt and his team.