Don’t be fooled: Steve Letarte has no intentions of returning atop the pit box full time.
The only reason he agreed to do so this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway is that friends at Spire Motorsports asked for his help. Ryan Sparks, crew chief of Spire’s No. 7 entry in the Cup Series, will be sidelined due to NASCAR’s COVID-19 protocols for Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Somebody else needed to help driver Corey LaJoie with the team’s Chevrolet at the track.
“While I guess I’m given this title of crew chief; I don’t want to diminish the role that all the crew chiefs throughout the garage area do 24/7, 365 to do their jobs,” Letarte said Thursday during a Zoom teleconference. “I’m by no means the crew chief of the 7 car. I’m filling in for one race and one day. It’s Ryan Sparks’ team. It’s Ryan Sparks’ car. It’s Ryan Sparks’ setup. All I’m really doing is managing the day and managing the race for Corey.”
LaJoie is in his third full-time season at the sport’s top level, but this is his first year with Spire. He finished ninth in the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway two weeks ago and then 31st at the Daytona Road Course last week.
Letarte joined as a consultant at Spire when co-owners Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr decided to upgrade into a two-car organization for 2021. The shop now houses the Nos. 7 and 77 Chevrolets. Letarte’s full-time job is with NBC Sports as an analyst.
NBC Sports takes over NASCAR coverage June 20 at Nashville Superspeedway.
“I don’t believe I’m going to carry a lot of knowledge from the booth to the pit box,” Letarte said. “What I’m really looking forward to — to be 100 percent honest — is everything I’m reminded and perhaps learn from the pit box that I can carry into the booth. I think that’s the direction information will flow.”
Letarte was a crew chief from 2005-14, with nine full-time seasons. He worked with Jeff Gordon (not during any of his four championship runs), Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Regan Smith (just two starts as a fill-in for Earnhardt in 2012). Letarte tallied 10 wins with Gordon and five with Earnhardt.
That was 218 races ago. Letarte is for sure going to be in communication with Sparks since he’s allowed to chat from home.
“Look, it has been six years,” Letarte said. “The sport has moved weekly, monthly, yearly. It moves so fast. This is more of a race-management role. I’m going to be leaning on Ryan and what he feels the correct adjustments match up with his car. The most important thing is to make sure I don’t create any story lines.”