Letarte and Earnhardt in Sync

Steve Letarte

"It was a fun day to finally get him to Victory Lane." (Photo: Getty Images)

Steve Letarte never questioned the commitment or desire of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to building a winning program.

The crew chief says it didn’t take very long for him to realize Earnhardt was determined to be successful.

“Probably a year ago February -- I mean, never in a moment or a day did I ever question his desire to drive,” said Letarte of when he first began working with Earnhardt.

“We sat down kind of when the whole deal came together. We spent some time that off-season. We went to Vegas for the banquet and a couple other things and I laid out what I thought would be a good plan to approach the season, no different than I would for any of the other years. And he was completely on board, gave his opinion on things which were great. Any time you can get an opinion of a veteran driver, a guy that's won that many races, that only makes your team stronger. We went to New Smyrna to make laps, and from that day forward, we have been all steam ahead.”

Once Earnhardt and Letarte began down their path in the aftermath of team owner Rick Hendrick pairing the duo, the performance of the No. 88 Chevy began to improve. Although it took until last Sunday at Michigan to finally get into Victory Lane, Letarte says even through many of the team’s ups and downs he never doubted Earnhardt being all in.

“One thing I can say, we have had bad runs, good runs, disagreements, agreements, but from the day we started working together, I hope he's never questioned my desire to improve the team and to run well and I never have questioned his desire and where he stands as far as the team and what our goals are when we came in here,” said Letarte.

The results didn’t come without effort and Letarte thought the best way to move forward from Earnhardt’s mostly disappointing first two years at Hendrick was to simply erase the past.

“I think the most important thing we did, when Mr. Hendrick made the changes to the race team, we started with a blank sheet of paper,” said Letarte of the journey with Earnhardt that began at the start of the 2011 season. “We didn't take any preconceived notions of what Dale's strengths or weaknesses were.

“I personally didn't listen to anybody else's opinions on Dale. I learned a lot from Mr. Hendrick on how to deal with people and with relationships, and the most important thing is to create your own relationship firsthand. Dale and I did that.”

The team then did its part by buying into Letarte’s vision and working in unison with Earnhardt’s input and feedback.

“I think Dale has seen the hard work,” Letarte said. “He's put in a tremendous amount of hard work on his side. Those complement one another. I think that's the reason we've been able to get through the ups and downs.

“I can't say enough about the group of guys we have here. They are a tremendous group. They deserve a tremendous amount of the credit. Dale deserves a tremendous amount of credit as well. He's not only a great driver, but he's a leader in the team. He does it in his own style and we love the style he brings. It was a fun day to finally get him to Victory Lane.”

Earnhardt’s confidence is understandably high right now but it didn’t take Sunday’s win for it to climb to that level. Consistent finishes and fast racecars nearly all season have given Earnhardt such self-assurance, he recently referred to himself as the best driver in the Hendrick stable.

While some took issue with that response, Letarte believes it was just another sign of how far his driver has come from the frustration that has previously defined his Hendrick career.

“I think that was a telltale sign to maybe the world where he stood on where his opinion was,” said Letarte. “That's definitely a question that I think anyone in a company wants to shy away from because it's a hard question to answer.

“Little things like that mean a lot to the race team because you have to think that. If you don't think that on Sunday morning, then this sport's really, really tough. If you don't believe that you can go out and be the best, then it's really hard to try to do that.”

Sunday in Michigan, Earnhardt was able to back up the claim.

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