Heading into Sunday's race at Pocono Raceway, the 31-year-old Letarte has guided Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team to 10 wins, 21 runner-up finishes, 77 top-five finishes, 108 top-10s and 14 pole positions in 174 races. Gordon's second-place and top-five finishes during that time rank as the most among all drivers (teammate Jimmie Johnson ranks second in top-fives with 76.)
Listen to a news conference with Letarte on Friday morning at Pocono or read the transcript below.
Listen to Steve Letarte's news conference (8 minutes, 28 seconds)
STEVE LETARTE, CREW CHIEF NO. 24 DUPONT CHEVROLET, met with members of the media at Pocono Raceway and discussed his contract extension, crew member changes and more.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR CONTRACT EXTENSION AT HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS? ARE YOU EXCITED? "I'm extremely excited. Hendrick Motorsports is the only company that I've ever received a paycheck from. I've worked here since I was a teenager and they've provided wonderful opportunities for me. I owe a lot to them and I'm really excited to be extended here so we can do it for a few more years."
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT JEFF DICKERSON BEING YOUR NEW SPOTTER? "Oh yeah, I'm excited to have Jeff on the roof. I think he brings a unique style. I've known Jeff for a long time. I've always heard him in my left ear for a lot of races; him and the 18 have run really strong at some of the speedways. I think the change will hopefully help us toward the end of some of the races--some of the double-file restarts get pretty wild. I think his style might maybe suit the races better."
WHAT STYLE ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? "I don't know if there is really a description to it. He is just very informative; he's almost like a commentator and less like a spotter. With a talent like Jeff [Gordon] behind the wheel I think all the information he can give us will just improve our performance."
CAN YOU GIVE US A FEW MORE DETAILS ON THE CONTRACT EXTENSION? "Yes, my extension is for three years. It seems like ever contract I've worked on here has been three years; that's kind of the template that we use. It's a great length of time for me and for the company. I'm really excited."
WHEN DO YOU THINK YOU'LL GET THAT FIRST WIN OF 2010? "I think we've been close, I feel we've been close all year long. There were a couple months there when I didn't think we had the speed that we needed. We might have had good finishes, but we didn't have the speed we had earlier in the year. Other than Indy last week I feel like we've had really good speed everywhere we've went and we're excited because Pocono is a different track. It doesn't really relate well to anything in the Chase, but there are some other track coming up--Atlanta, Michigan, some areas that I think will be very important for how you are going to run in the Chase."
YOU GUYS NEED SOME BONUS POINTS... "Oh yeah, bonus points are very important. Right now we're tied for sixth when the Chase starts. We need to be in the Chase first. I think we're getting more and more comfortable there. We've been trying to win races since February and I don't think we can do anything different to try to win races, but that is definitely our number one priority."
DOES THAT GET FRUSTRATING AT ALL? "Anytime you don't win you get frustrated. Every team in the garage wants to win races, so I think we're as frustrated as the other ones that aren't winning races. I don't think it's affecting our performance."
YOU'RE A COMPANY MAN, IT'S NOT LIKE YOU REALLY NEED A CONTRACT TO WORK FOR MR. H., BUT WHAT DOES A CONTRACT DO FOR YOU? "Yeah, I want to work for Mr. Hendrick for my entire career, but when you have a sport like this one--it reminds me a lot of college football--there is a lot of money involved, there is a lot of sponsors involved, it is a very high-pressure situation. The fact that you have a contract is always good. I have a wife and two kids so it gives me some comfort level. I agree with you. Rick is the kind of guy where a handshake would be good enough for most of us, but that's what the sport has become and that's the sport we race in."
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO GO TO THE NEXT LEVEL? YOUR TEAM IS SO CLOSE. "Wins. We need to get to victory lane. Until we do that, we're second in points without wins and while that is a good statement it is also disappointing to think of how we don't have any wins. We get in the Chase. I think the team that is hottest in the Chase is going to win the championship. I think there are five or seven real contenders; 12 really good teams, but just five or seven cars that showed throughout the first 26 races that they can be contenders. If they do that then it should be a really exciting Chase to watch."
HOW LONG DO YOU SEE YOURSELF DOING THIS? DO YOU THINK YOU'LL STILL BE DOING THIS IN 10 YEARS? "I don't know if my crystal ball is that clear. I know right now that I have a contract extension to do this three more years and I'm really excited to do that."
IS YOUR CONTRACT WITH THE NO. 24, OR SIMPLY WITH TEAM HENDRICK? "Good question. I mean right now, I signed a contract extension and I plan on being Jeff's crew chief. What the details are of it I'd have to go back and reread it. I'm really not too concerned about it. I've worked for Rick for a number of years and we have very good friendship. I believe in his vision and how he steers the company. I'm sure if he feels that there is some other place in the organization that he feels I can suit it better then we'll sit down and talk about that. But I have no plans of changing what I'm doing."
YOU'RE BY FAR ONE OF THE YOUNGEST CREW CHIEFS OUT THERE. DO YOU FEEL LIKE A YOUNG GUY, OR DO YOU FEEL LIKE A VETERAN? "Racing is kind of like dog years. I've been in the garage since I was 16 or 17 and that's all I've ever done. So no, I don't feel young or old, I just feel like a crew chief with a driver that is capable of winning races. As a crew chief, that's all you could ask for--a team that has the support that we have, and a driver like we have, and that's it. I don't think age really has a whole lot to do with it."
DID YOU TALK TO ANY OTHER TEAMS OR DID ANYONE COME TALK TO YOU? "No, I didn't talk to anybody else. There was never a question in my mind where I wanted to end up and we just finally got the formality out of the way. I don't think Rick or I were concerned, I think it was more the media was more concerned about my contract than we were. Once Rick and I talked on the phone--I don't even know when it was--awhile ago, we knew what we were going to do. There was never a question about it. Now the formality is all finished."
DO YOU THINK THAT IT HELPED PUT YOUR COMMITMENT INTO MAKING THIS A CHAMPIONSHIP WINNING TEAM? "Well I think we put in that commitment to make this a championship team a long time ago. It's never really been in question of Rick's commitment to this team, or to any of these teams. The spotter decision is something that I've been working on not anybody in the front office--that's more my decision. The contract, like I said, is more of a formality than anything. I've never really questioned where I was going to work. Jeff and I have those conversations over the winter to make sure that we're both on the same page, and the rest of it is just a part of the sport."
AS A PART OWNER, DO YOU TALK TO JEFF AT ALL ABOUT YOUR CONTRACT? "No, I do all my stuff with the front office. I don't work for Jeff Gordon, I work for Rick Hendrick. If it has to be that way, I don't think you can work for the driver that you're going out and trying to win races for. Jeff and I work together; we don't work for each other. All of my discussions are with other people in the company."
WHEN DICKERSON BECAME AVAILABLE AS A SPOTTER WERE YOU LOOKING AT THE TIME? OBVIOUSLY HE'S THE GUY THAT YOU CAUGHT. "Well, I wouldn't say that we caught him. I'm not sure what happened over at Joe Gibbs Racing, but when we got to Indianapolis and he wasn't on the roof--that's a very talented spotter, very high in the sport as far as a rating. When something like that happens, I want to be sure that I'm aware of it and it's my job to be able to pulse the sport and know when talent becomes available. It's no different with a jackman, or a tire changer; my job is to go win races with the 24 and if that takes the crew I have or a different crew or if there are changes that we can make--every Sunday we're going to put the best group out there that we can."
DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU'VE UPGRADED THAT POSITION? "I think Shano is a very, very good spotter. It's hard to say that it's an upgrade we haven't even run a practice yet. I think it's just a difference of style, a different direction, than an upgrade. I rate Shano very high; he's a very talented spotter. He's just a different style than Jeff [Dickerson], and Shano still works in our shop. He's a very talented mechanic and it's just going a different direction."
YOU PUT A LOT OF WEIGHT ON THAT RELATIONSHIP OF DRIVER-CREW CHIEF-SPOTTER. IT'S NOT SOMETHING YOU TAKE LIGHTLY? "Not at all. It's the three guys on the radio every Sunday. That's a third of the program there. The guy on the roof can have a humongous influence on how your day turns out. Absolutely. It's not a change we made lightly; it may have happened in a short time, but has a lot of hours and a lot of stress behind it. I feel like we made the right decision and now I'm just excited to move forward with it."
WHAT ABOUT ARIC ALMIROLA? YOU'RE GOING TO PUT HIM IN THE CAR FOR PRACTICE THIS WEEKEND? "We're on baby watch too, so Jeff and Ingrid are expecting their second child. While we support them 100%, we have no plans for Jeff not to drive the car, but just like making the spotter change it's a good idea to have a plan if something were to go wrong. If something were to occur where the baby was coming and Jeff had to leave, I want to be sure that the driver has already been decided on, Rick is involved, everybody is involved and there aren't a lot of questions. We're just going to put him in two laps on Saturday in practice just to make sure he's comfortable in the car. That will be it. I don't' expect it to be too big of a deal."
AND IT'S A COMFORTABLE DECISION BECAUSE HE WAS IN THE 48--HE DID A GOOD JOB. "Yeah, he was the natural person. We weren't really sure if he'd fit in our car, but we poured a seat liner in to make him work. He's a little taller than Jeff. He's a really great kid, he's really easy to work with and I think he's a very good, talented guy. We're excited to have him."
DID JEFF HAVE ANY KIND OF SAY IN YOUR CONTRACT EXTENSION? DID YOU TALK TO HIM AT ALL? "You'd have to ask Jeff on what he had in it; I haven't discussed anything with him."
DID YOU HAVE ANY THOUGHTS OR DOUBTS, LIKE 'MAN THIS IS JUST TOO MUCH?' "Not about the contract. The only fight I had was at the end of last year when I sat down with Jeff to make sure we were on the same page with where this team needed to go. Once we got that out of the way, the rest of it has really been kind of natural."