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Dale Earnhardt Jr. embraces change as NASCAR's Daytona 500 awaits

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 21, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Fla. Credit: Getty Images / Jerry Markland

Dale Earnhardt Jr. spent last Tuesday morning hawking Ragu sauce with celebrity chef Troy Gagliardo, and spoke of the similarities in preparing a meal for the dinner table and a racecar for the track.

By the end of 2013, it seemed clear he had found the right recipe on Sundays with crew chief Steve Letarte. The team finished fifth in the standings after a blown engine in the opener of the 10-race playoff, tying for the second-best points finish in Junior's 14-year career.

Earnhardt shares a Hendrick Motorsports shop in North Carolina with Jimmie Johnson and has seen the legendary partnership between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus first-hand. Junior's career with crew chiefs has been a not-so-enjoyable game of musical chairs. Earnhardt's rabid fan base, still awaiting his first Sprint Cup title, was rocked by news last month that Letarte would leave Junior in 2015 for an analyst spot when NBC takes over the second half of Sprint Cup season coverage.

But Junior maintains that Letarte's presence isn't leaving completely.

"Not everything in life is easy," Earnhardt said. "But the one thing I learned about racing early on is that things change, and you have to be able to adjust to change. Even the things you like and get comfortable with come and go, and you have to be ready for that. And the people who are successful are the ones who can deal with those changes and move forward. So I've learned a lot working with Steve, he's given me the tools to move forward. And I'm going to make him proud of the driver I'm become."

Earnhardt Jr. has said he's staying out of the crew chief replacement search, intent on making the most of 2014 and thinking of Letarte's needs.

"The initial reaction obviously wasn't all positive," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But once I got to thinking about his side of it and listening to his point of view I was really excited for him. I think he's gonna be great in the booth. I think he'll be as good in the booth as he is on in the pit box. It's something he's really excited about and really happy to do, and being his friend I'm happy for him. We'll find a suitable replacement at the crew chief position. We've got a lot of opportunity inside of Hendrick Motorsports to be able to do that. I'm not really worried about continuing our success. I think the change will be seamless, and Steve will have a lot of great things to look forward to."

Letarte and Earnhardt's girlfriend, Amy Reimann, have been credited with getting Earnhardt Jr. out of his motorcoach on race weekends, giving him a broader view of life. In the last few years he's seen that change can be good.

"I cooked up plenty for Valentine's," Earnhardt Jr. said proudly when asked. "My gal friend's pretty happy, so I'm not in the doghouse, that's all that matters."

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