Thursday's news about Steve Letarte leaving the #88 Chevrolet for the broadcast booth in 2015 was a huge blow to many Dale Earnhardt Jr fans. Letarte has been the crew chief on the #88 Chevrolet since the 2011 season and with Letarte Earnhardt has had his best three seasons at Hendrick Motorsports. It makes JR Nation wonder who is next? Who will be the next crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr come the 2015 season.
There's no doubt the news, while disappointing, didn't come out at a bad time for the fan base. While it may be hard to find a replacement the announcement gives the team plenty of time to make the right decision. The question is who is next?
As we sit here on January 9th, I believe there are three prime candidates to take over as crew chief of the #88 Chevrolet.
The first thing we have to consider is that Hendrick Motorsports usually likes to work in house. The crew chiefs usually stay with the organization and very rarely, unless requested by a driver, does the organization bring a crew chief in from another organization. Three of the four crew chiefs currently at Hendrick Motorsports are all in house guys. Alan Gustafson, Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte have all worked exclusively for Hendrick Motorsports. I believe the organization will look to go that route again to replace Letarte.
The first candidate is Alan Gustafson. Yes. I am award he is currently has a job as crew chief of Jeff Gordon's #24 Chevrolet. However, I believe Gordon's final season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will be the 2015 season. I believe that Gordon will be replaced by youngster Chase Elliott in the 2016 season. With that fact it'll be interesting to see what the team will do with Gustafson. Will Gustafson stay with the team throughout the Gordon era? Possibly. Will he help make Chase Elliott's transition to the Cup Series? Again it's a possibility.
However an interesting move happened this week when Chase Elliott was announced as driver of Dale Earnhardt Jr's Nationwide Series team. Greg Ives, former engineer on the #48 team was announced as crew chief for Elliott's team. Ives will work with Elliott for the 2014 season. With those facts that Ives could move to the #24 team a year early and work with Jeff Gordon in 2015. That would pave the way for Elliott to make the move to the #24 team with Gustafson moving to the #88 team.
Of course there is always the possibility that Ives moves to the #88 Chevrolet which leads me to my second candidate, Greg Ives. Ives, as I mentioned before, was the lead engineer on Jimmie Johnson's #48 Chevrolet before moving to become Regan Smith's crew chief in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2013. Together Smith and Ives had won two races together and now Ives is the crew chief for Chase Elliott. If a good season is ahead with Elliott Ives could succeed Letarte as Earnhardt's crew chief. The only issue would be for Ives is his resume. Ives isn't the high profile type guy Jr Nation would want and his creditability could be questioned at times. Ives could be the guy if people are patient.
The third in house candidate for Hendick Motorsports to hire would be Ron Malec who's the car chief on the #48 Chevrolet. Malec has been known to people the last few seasons as "Chad Knaus' right hand man." Knaus is known as one of the best crew chief's in NASCAR history and to have his right hand man would be a huge hire addition for Earnhardt. He very well may be the next in line after Chad Knaus. The big key with Malec is that will Rick Hendrick want to disturb the core of the #48 team. There seems to be a comfort level between Knaus and Malec and it may be a big deal to move Malec. If Chad Knaus doesn't want it to happen, I doubt it happens.
There are still a few external candidates that are possible. Todd Parrott, Tony Gibson and others are still possibilities. However, I believe it is more likely Hendrick will look in-house to replace Steve Letarte. Whoever they hire will go to the most scrutinized job in NASCAR. There's no doubt about that.
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