Tag:Steve Letarte
Posted on: April 6, 2011 2:40 pm
Edited on: April 6, 2011 2:41 pm

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

By Pete Pistone

A pair of athletes will significantly influence the sports viewing landscape this weekend - Tiger Woods and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Although neither have been particularly competitive in recent times, both names are still incredibly huge in their respective sports and each transcends their arena to mainstream fans and media.

So just as if golf will prosper if Woods becomes a factor in the sport’s most prestigious event at The Masters, Earnhardt’s performance in Saturday night’s stop at Texas Motor Speedway will surely impact NASCAR’s exposure.

You need to look no further than last week’s race in Martinsville to gauge whether or not Earnhardt is still popular or relevant. Despite not winning a race in nearly three years over the span of 98 races, when Earnhardt took the lead late in the race the packed grandstands erupted in a roar that thundered through the nearby Virginia mountains.

While ten other drivers also were in front at some point in Sunday’s 500-lap race, none elicited the kind of response Earnhardt did when he went to the lead.

FOX reports an overall television rating of 3.9/9 share for the race, down a bit from a comparable Martinsville event two years ago. But that number jumped to an eleven share of households watching the race when Earnhardt muscled around Kyle Busch and appeared on his way to victory lane.

Whether you like it or not the sport’s perennial Most Popular Driver is still the name that creates the most interest and can help bring the sport back from a couple years of mediocrity in the popularity department.

At least early on the science experiment by team owner Rick Hendrick to mix and match the driver and crew chief lineup sans Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus is paying dividends.

Jeff Gordon ended his long winless drought with a victory at Phoenix with new chief Alan Gustafson calling the shots. Mark Martin has regained the consistency that eluded him last year in his new pairing with Lance McGrew.

But maybe the most dramatic results have been the marriage between Earnhardt and Steve Letarte.

The cheering and motivating style of Letarte at first seemed a glaring contrast to be paired with the sometimes quiet and pensive Earnhardt.

“He’s a bit of a motor boat,” Earnhardt said when asked early on about his new relationship with Letarte.

However now with an off-season of planning, pre-season testing and six races under their belts, the Letarte-Earnhardt combo has been nothing short of impressive.

He was in the mix to win the Daytona 500 until a cut tire ended that quest and relegated Earnhardt to a 24th place finish. But since then it’s been a strong of solid runs that came to a crescendo at Martinsville when the No. 88 team’s effort ended in a runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt’s best effort since New Hampshire back last September.

"My biggest problem is my confidence," said Earnhardt, who frankly didn’t convey any over his first three years as a member of Hendrick Motorsports. "I know that I've outran and beat these guys that I compete with each week before, and I just have to remember that the potential is there. I believe in myself, but there's a swagger that you have to have."

That’s where Letarte comes in.

Almost immediately Letarte worked to build his driver’s confidence level and mental state before the two ever got to the racetrack.

“I felt it was important to build a relationship together on and off the track,” Letarte said. “We’ve known each other for a while but it’s a lot different when you work together as closely as we are now as crew chief and driver. The gain that trust, to help that psyche to me those first steps were important for us to become friends and we have. I think you’re seeing some of that translate to how we’re running on the race track.”

That same philosophy was evident in Letarte’s previous relationship with Gordon and although they weren’t able to get to victory lane together the bond between the two was credited for the several solid runs they enjoyed.

"It helps me so much to have him pushing me," Earnhardt said. "This is one race out of a long, long season, but this is the first time in a long time that I didn't feel like I was out on an island, you know, out there by myself.

"It's almost like he's riding in the car with you, punching you in the shoulder …. 'Come on, don't overdrive it. Dig! Dig!' I appreciate that. It makes me want to work."

Communication is a two way street and Letarte thinks Earnhardt has gotten much better at providing him with the information necessary to make the car better, an element that seemed to be lacking in previous crew chief relationships.

"When it comes to driver-crew chief feedback, my theories are it's my responsibility to lead him down the right path and ask the right questions because he's distracted, he's driving, he's busy," Letarte said. "It's his responsibility to answer the questions the best to his ability and if that's an 'I don't know' that's what I need, and he does a very good job of that."

So in a relatively short period of time Earnhardt has gone from also-ran to a driver that can legitimately contend for wins, and yes that’s plural.

In fact I see the winless drought ending in the next trio of April races beginning with Saturday night’s Texas visit with Talladega and Richmond left on the schedule this month. All are tracks where Earnhardt has enjoyed past success and all are places where there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t have a solid chance at taking the checkered flag.

NASCAR is a better place when Earnhardt is a factor. While I won’t go so far as to say the sport needs him to win, it sure would be a shot in the arm if and when he does.


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Posted on: March 10, 2011 3:48 pm
Edited on: March 11, 2011 1:49 pm

Behind the hauler: Steve Letarte

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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Posted on: July 30, 2010 3:54 pm

Gordon's crew chief Letarte gets extension

Hendrick Motorsports announced a multi-year contract extension with crew chief Steve Letarte .

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."

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com