Earnhardt Jr.: Things ‘won’t ever be the same’ without Steve Letarte
When Steve Letarte was named the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. before the 2011 Sprint Cup season, both men had reached a pivotal point in their respective careers.
"We both treated it like our last shot, although it probably wasn’t," Letarte, who will call his final race for Earnhardt Jr. in Sunday’s 2014 season finale, told FOXSports.com in an exclusive interview on Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"We were truly all in, we didn’t hedge our bets and have an insurance plan. We basically said, ‘Win, lose or draw, this is how we’re going to do it. We’re going to jump in with two feet and we’re going to let the chips fall where they may.’ And I think that blind commitment is really the way we got through the good times and bad times, the ups and downs."
Four years after joining forces, and with Letarte set to leave Hendrick Motorsports to become a NASCAR television analyst in 2015, the marriage between the driver and crew chief has bore fruit that perhaps only Earnhardt Jr., Letarte and Rick Hendrick — the man responsible for pairing them up — believed was possible.
After making the Chase for the Sprint Cup and winning one race in 2008 — his first year at Hendrick Motorsports — Earnhardt Jr. suffered through the worst two seasons of his career, in 2009 and 2010.
In those two years, NASCAR’s most popular driver finished 25th and 21st in points, respectively, while failing to find Victory Lane and struggling to even be competitive on many weekends.
With Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence visibly shaken, many observers began to wonder if the third-generation driver would ever dig his way out of the deep, dark hole he’d fallen into three years after team owner Hendrick hired him following eight years with Dale Earnhardt Inc. — the company Earnhardt Jr.’s legendary father built.
Then came 2011 and the union with Letarte, who as the crew chief for Jeff Gordon had won just one race over the previous three seasons after leading Gordon to a runner-up points finish and six wins in 2007.
Over the course of 2009 and 2010, Earnhardt Jr. worked with two full-time crew chiefs — cousin Tony Eury Jr. and Lance McGrew — both of whom seemed to rarely speak the same language as the affable Kannapolis, N.C., native.
So when Hendrick made the unexpected move of joining Letarte — a fast-talking, Type-A product of Cornish, Maine — with the often-shy, Southern-born and bred Earnhardt Jr., many wondered if the partnership would work.
But after leading Earnhardt Jr. to four Chase berths in as many seasons, along with five wins, including a victory in this year’s Daytona 500, Letarte was clearly the perfect match for Earnhardt Jr. And Earnhardt Jr. was the perfect match for Letarte.
"Dale and I, when we were put together, we were at the point in our career that we both had a lot to prove, we both wanted to find more success than what we had in years past," Letarte said. "We’re just very opposite personalities, I think, and see a lot of things the same way, so it was just easy to become friends. When you’re friends, it’s a whole lot easier to go work together."
How much of the credit for Earnhardt Jr.’s renaissance over the past four years goes to Letarte?
"He deserves a lot," Earnhardt Jr. told FOXSports.com on Saturday at Homestead. "He put the right guys in the right place. We’ve got a great team and they work really hard and we were able to kind of prove to ourselves what we were capable of doing this year, and it was good to be able to do that in his last season and to be able to get some wins and do some things we hadn’t been able to do before."
Despite marked improvements over his first three seasons with Letarte, Earnhardt Jr. won just once — at Michigan in June 2012. This year has been a fitting culmination to their time together however, as Earnhardt Jr. has triumphed four times and scored multiple victories for the first time since 2004 — his best year at DEI.
Long gone is the driver who just a few years ago had begun to question his driving abilities and often looked visibly uncomfortable around members of his own team.
"I think we see a driver that is confident with the types of race cars we give him if we give him winning race cars. And that really starts on Friday," Letarte said. "He comes into the garage area on Friday with more confidence in our goal and believing in our goals that we’re here to win races. That kind of breeds sort of a mental state on how you need to approach practice from the crew chief and the driver and the engineer. I just think that success breeds success, and as we’ve seen some success we’ve been able to continue that forward."
While Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte fell short of their ultimate goal of winning a championship together (Earnhardt was eliminated in this year’s Chase Contender Round), the dearth of a title certainly won’t be how they most remember their time together.
"We never really sat down and made mental goals," Letarte said. "Our goal for Year One was try to be relevant. Our goal for Year Two was to try to go out there and win a race, and we did that. Really, for both Year Three and Four, especially this year, it was to just go out and improve, continually improve. I think that’s the key to this sport.
"As long as you’re still climbing the mountain, you’re doing pretty good, but if you ever lose your footing, man, you can slide down the hill a long, long ways in a hurry."
Letarte announced in early 2014 that he would leave Hendrick Motorsports — the only placed he’s ever worked — at the end of the season. The long-time crew chief is excited about entering the world of broadcast journalism and is looking forward to the extra time with family that his move will afford.
But when the No. 88 team packs up and pulls out of Homestead late Sunday night, Letarte knows there will be some mixed emotions.
"I’ll feel that I’m losing kind of my second family with all the co-workers and team I’ve built, but they’re still my friends and my second family even if I don’t work with them," Letarte said. "I expect I’ll probably talk to Dale as much as I ever have about things that don’t involve race cars, and probably way, way less about race cars. There’s parts of me that are looking forward to that, as odd as it sounds.
"I love working with Dale Jr., but he’s become a friend of mine, and the rest of these guys in here, it’s difficult to manage your friends. It’s difficult to hire guys that turn out to be some of your best friends, so I’m really looking forward to them only being my friends."
Earnhardt Jr. admits it’s going to be tough no longer seeing Letarte perched atop the No. 88 pit box.
"Every time we do something the last time, it sort of dawns on you like, ‘Damn, we’re never going to do this again with Steve.’ And certainly on race day that’ll be very emotional for him and everyone else," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It’ll be emotional. He’s going on to do something he’s very excited about, so we’re very happy for him on that end. It’s not all sadness. … But he’s also probably going to miss a lot about this — being the crew chief and those jobs. Those responsibilities that are normally his and his alone, he’s going to miss all those things."
Earnhardt Jr. is going to miss the man who instilled confidence in him and helped get his career pointed back in the right direction when it seemed all hope may be lost.
"I like working with the guy, you know," Earnhardt Jr. said. "You go to work every day and it’s fun when you work with people you enjoy being around. He believes in what we can do and what I can do, so that’s very refreshing, and it’s great to have someone that shoots you straight. Man, it’s just a ton of things when it comes down to it that won’t ever be the same again."