By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
CONCORD, N.C.—Dale Earnhardt Jr. has one request of crew chief Steve Letarte, and it might seem unusual coming from a notorious late sleeper.
Letarte is a demanding crew chief. He sets the schedule and demands that Earnhardt report to work much earlier than has been his custom. If Letarte asks for a post-race report, Earnhardt fills out the form.
“I never really had anybody ask much of me, as far as a crew chief goes—just be there with your helmet, ready to drive when it’s time to drive,” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt, however, has accepted the radical change to his routine, and now his one request to Letarte can be summed up into two words: Don’t stop.
“Steve’s deal was that he had these expectations, his rules, this is what you were going to do: ‘I need this from you; you can do whatever you want, but this I need from you,’ ” Earnhardt said Wednesday at the Hendrick Motorsports stop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “That was good, man. I was like, ‘Hell, yeah.’
“I just told him this offseason, ‘I worry that you’re going to relax a little on that, the more we’re together, the more we become friends, the more he might let me off the hook—and I don’t want that to happen.”
That’s not likely to happen, because Letarte is comfortable with his role as taskmaster, even with the sport’s most popular driver. And team owner Rick Hendrick wants Letarte to exercise his authority.
“Without a doubt, I have no problem being the guy that takes the authority and sets the schedule,” Letarte said. “That’s my job. That’s the seat I have. That’s the desk I own. That’s the power Mr. Hendrick has given me to run this race team.”
Last year, in Letarte’s first season as Earnhardt’s crew chief, the performance of the No. 88 team improved markedly. Though Earnhardt failed to break a winless streak that had reached 129 races by the end of the campaign, he qualified for the Chase for the first time in three years and finished seventh in the final series standings, his best result since 2006.
To Hendrick, there’s a reason why Letarte has succeeded where his immediate predecessors, Lance McGrew and Tony Eury Jr., found frustration and failure.
“I think the other guys were scared of him, and they would get mad, and Junior would get mad, and we didn’t go anywhere,” Hendrick said. “But now Stevie knows exactly when he can pull that trigger, get him in the trailer or just ride to the races with him and work on him.
“They haven’t shown their potential yet, but I think you’ll see it this year. The confidence level, the communication—I just wish we had put them together early on. I had no way of knowing it would be as good as it is.”
Still, Letarte’s way of doing things took some acclimation of Earnhardt’s part.
“He wanted me there early,” Earnhardt said. “I was like grumbling about it at first, and he was like, ‘That’s the deal. That’s the way it is.’ Once we got to doing it, I understood it. I found that place to be enjoyable and wanted to be there. So it’s been good.
“He’s an easy guy to be around, too, which helps a lot. None of this works unless he’s got the right personality, a good personality. He deserves a lot of credit. He’s a good guy, and he took on a tough little job here. This is a tough gig for him, but he’s done well with it so far.”
“Tough” doesn’t describe the role as Earnhardt’s crew chief. The pressure is almost palpable. When Earnhardt doesn’t win, no one in his immense fan base blames the driver. The crew chief takes the brunt of the criticism, as Eury and McGrew learned only too well.
Hendrick says Letarte can shoulder the pressure and ignore it. Part of his success lies in treating Earnhardt as he would any other member of the team.
“I ask him to be a part of the team, no different than I’d ask an engineer or a tire changer,” Letarte said. “He has a responsibility to the race team, no different than I do, and if I feel more interaction with the team would help, then I ask for more interaction. If I feel a post-race form is going to help, then I ask him to do that.
“I treat him no different than I would critique a tire changer. He’s a superstar. He obviously is Dale Earnhardt Jr. We all know that. But I’ve been raised since a very, very young age by my father that he’s just a racecar driver. He’s no different than me. He just drives. I would expect no more or no less from him than I would expect from anyone on the team.”
And it’s not that Letarte hasn’t had experience in high-profile jobs.
Before taking over the No. 88 team, Letarte served as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief for six years, and he learned a valuable lesson in management from the four-time champion.
“Jeff used to tell me: ‘Treat me as you feel I need to be treated; don’t treat me (differently) because I’m Jeff Gordon,’ “Letarte said.
“He gave me that word of advice a long, long time ago when I became his crew chief in ‘05. We sat down, and he said, ‘Hey, we’ve been friends for a long time, but you need to push me, because a lot of people in the world don’t.’
“That’s probably some of the best advice Jeff Gordon ever gave me. I’ve used it through my whole crew-chiefing career, and, without a doubt, I push Dale no differently from the way I push any guy I work with. He never, ever, ever shies away from it. Everything I’ve ever asked him to do, he does.”