Hendrick to face life without Steve Letarte
January 09, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Crew chief guided Jeff Gordon to 10 wins from 2005 to 2010
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Steve Letarte has been at Hendrick Motorsports since he was 16, and he graduated early from high school so he could go to work for the team full time. He started out sweeping floors, and rose through the ranks to become a crew chief who oversaw race-winning efforts in NASCAR's top series.
Like many others at Rick Hendrick's race team, Letarte seemed a lifer. But Thursday brought the news that the 34-year-old Maine native would step down as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief after this coming season, and become a race analyst for NBC Sports when the network returns as a NASCAR broadcast partner beginning in 2015.
For Hendrick, it means saying goodbye to a crew chief who not only turned Earnhardt's No. 88 program around -- this past year's fifth-place finish was his best in seven years -- but also nearly won a championship in a successful stint with Jeff Gordon.
"I think we certainly had high hopes for a long future with Steve. He's been there for a long time, and he's brought a lot to Hendrick Motorsports. He started as a kid there and has really grown into being one of the top crew chiefs," Gordon said Thursday, when rain washed out the first day of Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona International Speedway.
"You want to be able to have that experience as well as knowledge. He's a smart guy, and you want to have that on your side in any shape or form, whether as a crew chief or in another role at Hendrick. So yeah, to me the biggest thing that stands out is just how well he and Junior connect, and what the future will be for that position for Junior beyond '14."
Letarte, whose has displayed a knack for issuing positive reinforcement and keeping his driver motivated over the radio, took over the No. 88 team in 2011 after Earnhardt had suffered through consecutive seasons in which he finished 25th and 21st in Sprint Cup points. Since then the progress has been steady, even if the two have won just one race together -- at Michigan in the summer of 2012. Letarte's most successful years to this point came with Gordon, with whom he won 10 races from 2005 through 2010. The two nearly won the title in 2007, dominating the regular season until finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
"You never want to see a talented and all-around quality person like Steve move on, but we understand this is an exciting opportunity for him and his family," Hendrick said in a statement. "He has all the tools to be a terrific broadcaster, and I know our fans will enjoy hearing his perspective. We're looking forward to a successful year in 2014 with Steve and Dale leading the No. 88 together. They have some of the best chemistry in the garage, and we know they'll build on last season and continue to be a championship-contending team."
At NBC, Letarte will round out a booth that will also include Jeff Burton as analyst and Rick Allen as race announcer. Burton, a 21-time winner in NASCAR's premier series, split with Richard Childress Racing after last season and is running a part-time schedule this year for Michael Waltrip Racing. Allen currently calls Camping World Truck Series events for Fox Sports 1. Letarte did not speak to the media Thursday, though he is scheduled to join Burton and executive producer Sam Flood on an NBC panel Friday morning.
"I think he's going to do fantastic," Gordon said. "We all know Steve is a good talker, and he's very knowledgeable about the sport, very passionate about it, and so I think they've made an excellent choice there."
But what about the No. 88 team? Earnhardt was also unavailable Thursday, but is slated to speak to the media Friday morning. Hendrick Motorsports announced that Letarte will remain in his current role with Earnhardt through 2014, and added that the organization won't look for a new crew chief until the after the season.
"You know, I think only time will tell how it's going to affect (the No. 88 team), but I think Steve is very, very good at compartmentalizing the commitment and what it takes to do his job as a crew chief and be the best crew chief that he can be," Gordon said. "And he and Junior have a great relationship, and I'm sure when the news first broke to Junior, it probably was a bit of an adjustment, but I feel like they've worked through all the details on how to maintain that level of competition, the momentum that they had from last year, and keep that going through this year."
NASCAR and NBC Sports Group reached an agreement in July of last year that grants NBC Universal exclusive rights to the final 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, the final 19 NASCAR Nationwide Series events, select NASCAR Regional and Touring Series events, and other live content beginning in 2015. Of NBC Sports Group’s 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events, seven will be carried on NBC annually, with 13 airing on NBC Sports Network. Four of NBC Sports Group’s 19 NASCAR Nationwide Series races will air on NBC, with 15 airing on NBC Sports Network.
Letarte, who with his wife Tricia has two children, has occasionally done television and radio work on the side. Gordon said he wasn't shocked to hear the news that his teammate would be moving behind the microphone full-time -- even though Letarte has been a fixture at Hendrick for as long as many can remember.
"Not necessarily," Gordon said. "I mean, I've seen him do some work with TV and radio over the last year or two, so I can't say I was totally surprised. He's a young man that has a lot of talents and is always eager to take that next step in life. He has a family. It takes a lot to be a crew chief. It's quite a commitment, and I think this is a great opportunity for him."