By Pete Pistone
Each week we'll bring you a one-on-one interview with some of the biggest names in NASCAR. This week we kick things off with Dale Earnhardt Jr. 's crew chief Steve Letarte .
Letarte is used to working in the spotlight. Prior to the assignment this year to work with NASCAR's most popular driver, Letarte spent three seasons calling the shots for Jeff Gordon.
Although it's very early in the 2011 Sprint Cup Series season, Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. have enjoyed a solid start turning in back-to-back top ten finishes in Phoenix and Las Vegas, where the No. 88 Chevrolet came home eighth in last week's Kobalt Tools 400.
Letarte stopped by Sirius NASCAR Radio's "The Morning Drive" and talked about the weekend and Vegas and his early assessment of working with Earnhardt:
How as your trip back home after Las Vegas?
It wasn’t bad. Wasn’t bad at all. I like going out to the west coast there’s some beautiful tracks out there but it’s a long way from home so we get to go back to work at Bristol before we go back out to California in a couple weeks.
Eighth place finish in Las Vegas. Good way to get some spring in your step as you head into the off weekend?
Yeh, we had a better car than we though we had al weekend long. We struggled on Friday in qualifying and we really weren’t the fastest thing again on Saturday, you know Dale and I and the engineers we all sat down and put together a plan for Sunday, you now it worked out relatively well. I though we had pretty good speed. You know I was a little disappointed with myself taking four tires at the end rather than two and maybe we could have gotten a top five out of it. I was gambling on the caution…I wanted to be on four tires in case the caution did come out.
You were so good at Las Vegas a year ago with Jeff. Was the car Junior drove out there the same as a year ago Steve?
No, no. A different car, you know the cars have evolved so much over a year that we build new cars all the time and try to get better. That car was something we built toward the end of last year. We have a brand new car ready to go out to California. It was a little different set up because the tire combination was a little different on both the left and right sides and it took a little different set up and I think that’s why were a little off both Friday and Saturday – we were hoping it was closer to what it was last year.
I don’t want to get too excited about top ten finishes but it’s no secret starting the year we wanted to get our feet on the ground and get momentum heading in the right direction…it was more than a top ten it was a legitimate fast race car that drove from the back to the top five, we drove in the top five for a chunk of laps. The most important thing to us we finish on good days with a good finish and that’s what we made sure we did.
Is this still a work in progress between you and Dale Junior and the team?
Oh absolutely. To think you’re going to have it figured out in three weeks is not really an accurate statement. But he’s very comfortable. I can tell you it doesn’t take a lot of work. Dale and I get along really good. We spend a lot of time together away from the racetrack because we hang out together, we enjoy each other’s company, he’s a fun guy to be around, we have the same sense of humor. It’s an interesting conversation really. We went out to dinner Saturday night, we rode around Las Vegas, we talked about the car. They’re not forced conversations, they’re easy to have and I think without a doubt Mr. Hendrick new that, that’s why he put us together and it’s obvious to me what he saw now.
You and Dale Jr. went out to dinner. Were you recognized?
I know you’ll find this hard to believe but I wasn’t recognized. There were a few people when we’d stop at lights they’d recognized Dale Jr. and he’d give them a little wave. You know I learned what the fans love about Dale Jr. they love about Dale Jr. is that he’s an every guy’s guy. You know he’s a pretty simple guy, he likes to hang out. And that’s what we did, we rode around Las Vegas and we hung out.
What’s interesting about this Steve is that you said when you first got this job that your relationship away from the track was going to be just as important if not more so than what you did at the track in terms of your overall success.
Yes. That’s why it’s so important that it’s such an easy friendship. I truly enjoy hanging out with him. I believe he enjoys hanging out with me. We’re the same in a few ways and very very opposite in others. Like I say we complement each other, his feedback in the racecar has been tremendous. It’s been a really fun three weeks. I’m glad to say I’m disappointed in eighth. It feels good to be disappointed in eighth again. You know tenth in Phoenix we were happy with, eighth in Las Vegas while I’m pleased with eighth I know we had more in the tank and man it’s just a great feeling to have, we’re excited, it’s a fun relationship, so far it’s been a successful relationship and man, I’m just having a blast crew chiefing for Dale Jr.
Rick Hendrick has said the Dale Jr. even helps push the car through tech. What kind of message does that send to the crew?
You know I think what happens is there’s a big public perception of what Dale Jr. needs to be doing, what he needs to be better and he needs this and he needs that and I don’t think that quite lines up with what the truth is. I think the more he’s around the team I let the team decide for themselves. I don’t try to sell it to them. I learned a long time ago that I try to handle all relationships on a first name basis and I want my race team to handle relationships on a first name basis. I want them to know Dale Jr. by themselves, not because of what I said or Rick Hendrick said or what he said at media day. The more they are around him the more they can develop that relationship. That’s what you need.
What ab out the timing of this off season Steve. Is this a good time to be off or would you rather be back at the racetrack with the momentum you have?
With the momentum we have I think we’d rather be at the race track, but with the long summer we have I wish we could sprinkle some of these off weekends throughout the season but you know Daytona’s so long and then back to back out on the west coast, it’s nice to have a little break. I get to spend time with my family so that’s great and it’s been a very busy off-season. Even though we weren’t at the racetrack in January I was at the shop a lot. I want Dale to rest up, I’ve been asking a lot of him and he’s committed and I want him to rest. It will be a good chance for everyone to step away from the busy schedule for a moment, maybe collect our thoughts maybe put them down on paper and see what we need to do when we get to Bristol, you know it’s always good to have a rest.
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