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Letarte's greatest victory? Junior himself

January 13, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Crew chief leaving behind a very different -- and more complete -- driver

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a mess.

That much was evident from every four-letter word that exploded over the radio, a cacophony of profanity-laced frustration that characterized one of the worst meltdowns NASCAR's most popular driver had ever suffered behind the wheel of a race car. He had been in the lead, then got a set of tires that didn't click with his vehicle and started dropping back in the field.

And he wasn't happy about it.

"I can't figure out why we keep (bleeping) up in the middle of these races," Earnhardt vented to his crew. "Every (bleeping) time."

It was just the beginning of an absolute fit thrown by Earnhardt during a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2008, a tantrum that grew so bad car owner Rick Hendrick had to intervene and play amateur psychologist over the radio. Earnhardt finished fifth that day, and maintained fourth place in the standings at the time, but it was clear the No. 88 team was hanging by a thread. Adversity had a way of overwhelming them, so in retrospect it seemed no surprise that Earnhardt tumbled into the 20s in points in each of the next two years.

Things these days are much different. Earnhardt still doesn't win races probably as often as he should, and he can still get mad over the radio and, unfairly or not, he can still heap loads of responsibility upon himself. But the Dale Earnhardt Jr. of today is far more polished and professional than he was then, far more capable of managing and overcoming misfortune, much better suited to contending for a championship over the long haul of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. And a primary reason for all that is the past three years Earnhardt has spent working with crew chief Steve Letarte.

Hendrick has made plenty of great decisions over the past 30 years, not surprising given that he oversees an organization that's won 11 championships at NASCAR's top level. His most recent masterstroke was pairing Earnhardt with Letarte, a crew chief who exuded the kind of positivity the driver of the No. 88 car sorely needed at the time. It's easy to forget now, after three straight seasons where he's qualified for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but many fans thought Earnhardt's career was over after he finished 25th and 21st in consecutive seasons (2009, 2010). People envisioned him fielding a Sprint Cup car out of JR Motorsports, and just playing out the string.

In retrospect, it all seems so ludicrous. Success in sports is so often about fit, the right athlete being in the right situation at the right time. For his first three seasons at Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt was a square peg being hammered into a round hole. He was at Hendrick, the best team in NASCAR, but he wasn't yet of Hendrick. Letarte, a Hendrick employee since he was 16, steeped in the owner's way of doing business, nurtured by championship seasons with Jeff Gordon, changed all that. He demanded more of Earnhardt off the track, he gave more to Earnhardt on the track, and the result was a transformation that in 2013 netted the driver's best season in years.

"We really took off at the very beginning of our working relationship, because he was always positive," Earnhardt said during Preseason Thunder. "I'd beat myself up, and went through such a struggle on the race track, and professionally, I was having a hard time up until that point in the couple years before I worked with Steve. And things just weren't good at all. I couldn't get any traction, couldn't get anything going in the right direction, and I didn't know why, why I didn't run well. I couldn't see a problem with the team I was with. I couldn't see a problem with the people I was working with. I couldn't see a reason why we were so unsuccessful."

He certainly can now. Letarte entered the picture after the 2010 campaign as part of a Hendrick personnel shuffle that moved him from Gordon's No. 24 program, and was adamant he and Earnhardt would get everything figured out. He put an emphasis on improving the cars, of giving Earnhardt something better underneath him, and took the pressure off his driver in the process. He demanded more of Earnhardt in terms of debriefs and follow-up reports. He kept his driver upbeat and motivated in the seat, and he produced immediate results.

"It took a lot of pressure off of me, as I wasn't the reason for all the failures and all the struggles in the past," Earnhardt remembered. "When we would not run well, he could point to an area where we could improve, and we would improve that area and the performance would pick up. It was a lot of fun, (to) take the pressure off of me and just be able to go to work and see things change and get better. That was just a great experience."

Now, Earnhardt will call upon all the lessons he learned under Letarte, given that his crew chief will be leaving after the 2014 campaign to become a television analyst with NBC Sports. This is no small departure -- given the rather wide disparity in results before and after Letarte's arrival, it appears evident that the droll Maine native was the missing link. And yet, listening to Earnhardt over the radio today versus five years ago, seeing his level of engagement today versus five years ago, it seems fairly certain that Letarte's presence has made a lasting difference. The Dale Earnhardt Jr. who suffered that meltdown over the radio in 2008 feels like a different driver than the one we see now.

No one seems more aware of that than Earnhardt himself, who is more prepared for life after his current crew chief because of the time the two have spent working together.

"I've grown a lot as a driver working with Steve, and I feel confident that we can continue to see success," Earnhardt said. "I want to give Steve a lot of credit for how I've changed, and he does have a lot of influence on the performance of the team, but I feel confident the team is going to be just fine no matter who the crew chief is. There's a culture in that shop, and it's a culture of success and winning, and anything else is not acceptable. I feel like that will continue after Steve is gone.

"I think the things that I've learned with Steve, and what he's taught me and how I've grown as a person and as a driver, I'll be able to try to maintain that and carry that into the next relationship I have with the next crew chief. I really feel like he's helped me become much more professional behind the wheel in handling my responsibilities and communicating and carrying myself as an adult and as a professional. That was a bit of a problem for me when I was younger. I'd kind of lose it behind the wheel every once in a while and argue and fight. We definitely have moved quite a ways away from that."

Indeed, they have. Thinking back to the days when Earnhardt and former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. regularly feuded with one another -- something that at the time was just chalked up to cousins being cousins -- it's been a day-and-night transition.

Again, so much of success is about fit, and Earnhardt's next crew chief will still need to possess the traits and tactics that bring out the best in him. But Earnhardt has been molded into a more mature and professional race car driver, one much better suited to withstand his crew chief's looming departure. Over and above any single race win, that may prove Steve Letarte's greatest victory.

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