Crew chief Steve Letarte welcomes driver's input, involvement
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is engaged. Hold off on the congratulations, though.
Make that more engaged.
NASCAR’s most popular driver appears happy in his current relationship, but wedding bells weren’t the topic of Earnhardt Jr.’s conversation during a break in testing Friday at Daytona International Speedway.
It seems the Hendrick Motorsports driver has become more involved in what most drivers see as the day-to-day drudgery of testing.
"The day goes by fast when you are plugged in like that."
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While crew chiefs, crewmen and engineers buzz around Sprint Cup cars during Preseason Thunder, a driver’s workload consists of pushing the car to its limits, then reporting how the car reacted. The process is repeated often as adjustments are made throughout the day.
For drivers, much of their time is spent sitting behind the wheel on pit road, waiting for the opportunity to make a solo run on the track unimpeded by traffic.
“Yeah, it can be,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “As a driver, and this is specific to the Daytona tests only, you don’t really have to pay attention to what they are putting on the car, what they change.
“If you don’t ask and if you don’t really get into it, rarely will a crew chief include you in that conversation.”
Now, however, Earnhardt Jr. said he has gotten more involved in what takes place when he isn’t in the car.
“I just plug into what they are doing,” he said of his No. 88 team.
Not only does it give him a better idea of what changes are being made, but why each is being made as well. And that, he said, “helps me because we have been doing this a long time, and something they are doing might dig up a memory of a test or something we tried on some cars back in the DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) days that worked.
“It’s good for me to be involved as much as I can," he said. “So that helps me get to clicking; the day goes by fast when you are plugged in like that.”
Fourth on the speed chart after Saturday’s final session, Earnhardt Jr. had much to occupy his time. Although involved in a 12-car accident on Friday that sent several teams home a day early, his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet escaped the incident unharmed.
Crew chief Steve Letarte said his driver, whom he has worked with since 2011, “always seems relatively involved, pretty interested in what we’re doing.”
“He’s got quite a knack for speedway racing, so he’s always put his two cents in,” Letarte said. “We’ve had some good speedway cars down here … we just try to back that up.”
The Daytona 500, Letarte said, is a different animal, and additional input from his driver is welcome.
"The other three (restrictor-plate races) are impounds (where only minor changes can be made to the car following qualifying). You just show up and race them. If you survive them, you’ll be pretty good. February’s not like that.”