Position: Crew Chief
Steve Letarte can trace his passion for racing back to his childhood, when he would help his father build and sell cars for a regional racing series. As a youngster, Letarte knew he wanted a career in racing, but he had no idea his desire ultimately would carry him to Hendrick Motorsports, where he now is entering his 19th year and his fourth straight season atop the box with fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Letarte grew up in a small town near Portland, Maine, often working with his father in his race shop during the week. Saturdays were reserved for racing, and the two Letartes went to the local track to watch their handcrafted Busch North Series cars compete. Several years later, Letarte’s father accepted one of the multiple offers he had received to build cars for the Sprint Cup Series. The decision moved the Letartes to North Carolina in 1994, and gave the motorsports-minded 14-year-old Letarte an awesome surprise. Ray Evernham, Jeff Gordon’s crew chief at the time, was his next-door neighbor.
Letarte began his journey to one of the most coveted jobs in racing by mowing Evernham’s lawn. Evernham recognized Letarte’s work ethic and asked him to help out at the No. 24 race shop at Hendrick Motorsports. Letarte’s tenure at Hendrick Motorsports began in May of 1995 when he was a 16-year-old high school student working part-time as a parts assistant for the No. 24 Chevrolet driven by Gordon. In 1996, after graduating from high school early, Letarte joined the team full-time as a mechanic and tire specialist. Only a year later, the young tire specialist and the No. 24 team celebrated a championship season that featured 10 victories, including Gordon’s first Daytona 500 win. For the next two seasons, Letarte continued to work as a tire specialist on the No. 24 team, which recorded 13 wins on the way to the 1998 Cup championship. The team finished sixth in points in 1999 after posting seven wins.
Letarte’s work ethic continued to pay off as he climbed from tire specialist to mechanic and also became the rear-tire carrier on the pit crew by 2001, when Gordon captured his fourth Cup championship. In 2002, Letarte was promoted to car chief, a position he held until the 26th race of the 2005 season. At that time, Letarte was promoted to crew chief, and within six races, the No. 24 team was in Victory Lane at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Letarte led the No. 24 team to collect four top-10 finishes in the final five races of the 2005 season.
In 2006, during his first full season as crew chief, Letarte led the No. 24 team to two victories, two pole positions, 14 top-five finishes, 18 top-10s and a sixth-place finish in the championship standings. Gordon’s victories were significant as Letarte called the race for Gordon’s first win at Chicagoland Speedway in July and his ninth overall road course victory – a Sprint Cup Series record – at Sonoma, Calif., in June.
Letarte and Gordon continued to find success in the 2007 season. Letarte led the No. 24 team to six victories, seven poles, 21 top-five finishes, and 30 top-10s – a single season record for most top-10 finishes in the modern era (1972 – present). Letarte also guided Gordon to his first win at Phoenix International Raceway. Gordon’s April win at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway was his 12th career restrictor-plate victory – a Sprint Cup Series record. Gordon’s second-place finish in the final standings marked Letarte’s best year-end result as crew chief.
In 2008, the No. 24 team notched four pole positions, 13 top-five finishes and 19 top-10s. The No. 24 team finished seventh in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, marking its third straight top-10 result in the championship standings. Under Letarte’s guidance, Gordon extended his streak of 16 consecutive seasons with a pole position when Gordon notched his first career pole at Texas Motor Speedway.
In 2009, Letarte and the No. 24 team improved upon their previous Cup campaign by recording the team’s first win at Texas Motor Speedway, one pole position, 16 top-five finishes and a series-high 25 top-10s. Gordon finished third in the final standings.
Letarte and Gordon continued Gordon’s streak of 18 seasons with a pole position when he claimed the top starting spot during the 2010 fall race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. The team finished the season ninth in the point standings.
On Nov. 23, 2010, Hendrick Motorsports named Letarte crew chief of the No. 88 Chevrolets driven by Earnhardt. The No. 88 team opened the 2011 season by capturing the pole position for the Daytona 500 and flirted with Victory Lane several times, notching runner-up finishes at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in April and Kansas Speedway in June. At Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, Earnhardt led the final lap, but ran out of gas coming out of Turn 4, and he crossed the finish line seventh. Letarte led the team to one pole position, four top-five finishes and 12 top-10s, as Earnhardt went on to capture seventh in the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
During the 2012 season Letarte helped lead Earnhardt to one of his most successful campaigns since 2004. Earnhardt won the June race at Michigan International Speedway in dominating fashion with a 5.393-second margin of victory. The team then captured the pole position at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway in September. Letarte led the team to one win, one pole position, 10 top-five finishes and 21 top-10s with drivers Earnhardt and Regan Smith (two races). Earnhardt finished 12th in the 2012 Chase.
In 2013, Letarte led Earnhardt to his best Chase finish at Hendrick Motorsports and a career-best top-10 finish. Earnhardt finished the season ranked fifth in the 2013 Chase on the strength of two pole positions, 10 top-five finishes and 22 top-10s. The team notably scored five second-place finishes during the season, including at the Daytona 500, where Earnhardt pushed teammate Jimmie Johnson to victory.