RICHMOND, Va. – There’s just something about racing under the lights at Richmond International Raceway that still gives crew chief Steve Letarte chills.
“I grew up in the northeast, and Richmond is the kind of short track like I grew up racing on,” said Letarte, crew chief of the No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet. “It’s two-groove racing. It’s just a blast. It’s a two-day show. You show up Friday and get it all knocked out and come back Saturday and race under the lights. It’s one of the few tracks that gives you goose bumps. It is a blast.”
The atmosphere alone would be enough to prompt excitement, but Letarte has plenty of other reasons to be pumped heading into Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Richmond, which will air at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX.
For starters, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team are averaging a 10th-place finish with two top-five finishes and five top-10s in the first eight events of the season. During the month of April, Earnhardt has improved his average to a fifth-place finish as he’s led a combined 30 laps and climbed to third in the driver standings.
In this particular race at Richmond, Earnhardt is especially strong. The driver of the No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet has earned all three of his wins in the sprint event and ranks tied for first in that category. Overall, Earnhardt has three wins, eight top-five finishes and 10 top-10s in 23 Cup starts at the .75-mile racetrack.
But setting up the car will be key to more success for Earnhardt and the No. 88 team there. Letarte anticipates making a number of changes throughout the weekend to Hendrick Motorsports Chassis No. 88-542, the same car Earnhardt drove to a 10th-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway in February.
“The funny thing about Richmond is that you race under the lights, and that is the only time you’ll be on the track under the lights,” Letarte said. “It’s difficult. You practice in the middle of the day on Friday. The track couldn’t be any more different. That track schedule has been consistent for years so our notebook is very thick. If you run a setup in the middle of the day on Friday, you had better make some changes for Saturday night. We have a pretty good confidence on what we have to do, and they seem to work good.”
Earnhardt counts Richmond similar to racing Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Speedway because the lines and the tracks are similar. But while he’s comfortable there, he’s still cautious – especially when it comes to running through Turn 4. Rolling through the center is the key to being fast at Richmond, Earnhardt says.
“The last couple times I've been there we've struggled turning in the middle,” Earnhardt said. “The car has to turn and cut in the center of the corner and have good drive off, especially in Turn 4. You can spin your tires real bad coming off of (Turn) 4 if you aren’t careful."