Steve Letarte remembers the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas earlier this year when Dale Earnhardt Jr., with no race practice because of rain all weekend, took the lead by passing the best drivers on the outside.
That move is one of the reasons that Letarte believes he can help Earnhardt Jr. find his confidence, and victory lane, in 2011.
The newly named crew chief for NASCAR’s most popular driver is ready for the challenge and said he did not question team owner Rick Hendrick’s decision to move him from working with four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon to Earnhardt Jr., who has struggled the last three seasons at Hendrick under crew chiefs Tony Eury Jr. and Lance McGrew.
“I have 100 percent faith in Mr. Hendrick and the decision he makes,” Letarte said Wednesday afternoon at the Hendrick Motorsports shop. “I was excited for the opportunity. I was humbled. It’s a task that he has given me that is not a small task, it’s not an insignificant task.
“It’s a very important task for this company, for Dale Jr., for the sport, and I take it as that. I was very proud that I was the guy tagged for that. I’m excited, and I’m ready to go.”
Letarte has spent the last five-plus years working with Gordon. Although they made the Chase for the Sprint Cup all five years, they managed only 10 victories in 190 races – and just one in the last three years – while Gordon challenged for the title only in 2007.
Such results were hard to stomach for Letarte, a member of all four of Gordon’s championship teams and someone that worked in the Hendrick shop at age 16 in 1995.
“Five years is a long opportunity, and I had an opportunity to get him there, and we came close a few years but we never got there completely,” the 31-year-old Letarte said of his time spent with Gordon. “I’m definitely disappointed in that. … I’m a crew chief in this sport because of Jeff Gordon.
“I’m a crew chief in this sport because of Rick Hendrick. Those two created who I am. When I started here, I was a 16-year-old kid that swept the floor with a lot of desire and not a lot of knowledge.”
Two aspects of his experience with Gordon could be beneficial in his new job.
The first is that Gordon can get animated on the radio during the race, just like Earnhardt Jr., being horribly blunt if he dislikes the car.
“I don’t think much gets me too worked up anymore,” Letarte said. “Dale Jr. and I will be a great mix on the radio. The most important thing is to have opposites. Jeff and I were opposites; Jimmie [Johnson] and Chad [Knaus] are opposites.
“Dale Jr. can be excitable, and I usually stay pretty calm. That’s my job. I’m not in the car. I don’t have the distractions. I can get down [off the box] and get a glass of water.”
Being Gordon’s crew chief also put Letarte in the spotlight. He already has felt the harsh words of fans blaming him for Gordon’s woes. That likely will be no different – and more than likely intensified – if Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t perform up to expectations.
“I would say that if the spotlight got to me, I’d be well sunburned by now,” Letarte said. “I’m not too concerned. My dad raised me from a very young age on how racing works – whether it’s Jeff Gordon, Dale Jr., Jimmie Johnson or whoever it is, when they put a helmet on, that’s a driver.
“That’s what they are and that’s the tool we’ll use to win races. And I think Dale Jr. gives me a remarkable tool to take to the race track.”
Earnhardt Jr. in is in the midst of a 94-race winless streak and has won only once in three years since joining Hendrick Motorsports.
He started his Hendrick tenure with Tony Eury Jr. as crew chief before Lance McGrew took over in May of 2009.
“I believe he’s a remarkable race-car driver, and I think some people in the world have forgotten that,” Letarte said. “I look forward to the opportunity to remind them that he is as good as I think he is.
“I’ve had the ability to work around some very remarkable talents, and I think he is included in that bunch. That’s my motivation – to show everybody in the world how talented Dale Earnhardt Jr. is. … We know he can do it. We just have to give him a consistent platform to operate on. I have all the faith in the world with him.”
Before sitting down with McGrew, Letarte will talk more with Earnhardt Jr.
“The first person I will talk to is Dale,” Letarte said. “I won’t talk to anybody about Dale except for Dale. I will have a relationship with him. After I feel that relationship has fostered in the direction where it needs to be, then without a doubt I will be on the phone with everybody he’s worked with, everybody who has ever set up a car for him.
“Because if I didn’t, then that would just be ignorant. If I didn’t call Lance McGrew, then we wasted the last number of races they worked together on setups and information. Just because their success level wasn’t where it needed to be doesn’t mean they didn’t learn anything.”
Letarte said he wasn’t surprised by the decision nor the crew chief swaps. McGrew will now work with Mark Martin while Gordon will work with crew chief Alan Gustafson, who was Martin’s former crew chief.
“We all knew that the company didn’t run as well as we wanted to and I know Jeff and I were disappointed in our performance together and we knew that the 88 [of Earnhardt Jr.] needed to improve and we knew there were areas around the company that needed to improve,” Letarte said.
“I wouldn’t say it was shocking. We definitely didn’t have a lot of conversation before yesterday about this specifically. … Nothing surprises me anymore.”
Letarte said he and Earnhardt Jr. have talked since the announcement. They will do some testing in the offseason, including possibly one day of the Goodyear tire test Dec. 15-16 at Daytona International Speedway.
“The biggest challenge with Junior is keeping it as simple as racing,” Letarte said. “That’s really all it is. Everybody makes it a whole lot more than that.
“The simple fact is we race for a living. We have the best jobs in the world – to make sure my team and Dale Jr. and me and the sponsors and Rick everyone remembers what we’re on the race track to do. That will be our biggest goal.”
Letarte said he would have to sit down with Hendrick and Earnhardt Jr. to determine their specific goals. Earnhardt Jr. made the Chase in 2008 but was 25th in the standings in 2009 and 21st in 2010.
“We need to set what expectations we think are realistic,” Letarte said. “The most important thing is [to] give him an opportunity to showcase his talent. I think he is a remarkable talent.
“I without a doubt think we can go to victory lane with Dale Jr. I think we can contend for the Chase.”
Letarte already has told Earnhardt Jr. one condition of their relationship.
“I already told him this isn’t going to help on the trades,” Letarte said in reference to their fantasy football league. “He’s out of luck. Those bum trades he offers up are ridiculous. He isn’t going to get a good player out of me just because I’m his crew chief.”
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