Letarte Ready for Next Step

Steve Letarte

The solid performance in last year's Chase has Earnhardt, Letarte and the entire No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team thinking big for the coming campaign. (Photo: Getty Images)

In 2013, Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied his career-best points finish since the inception of the Chase.  Now, crew chief Steve Letarte is ready to find even more success in 2014.

Earnhardt wound up fifth in the 2013 standings (for the third time in the Chase) and had a career-high 22 top-10 finishes over the course of the 36-race season.  After starting the Chase with an engine failure at Chicagoland Speedway, he was still able to post an 8.5 average finish during the 10-race playoff schedule.

The solid performance has Earnhardt, Letarte and the entire No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team thinking big for the coming campaign.

However, despite the positive vibe, there is still a huge stat staring Earnhardt in the face on the threshold of the new season: a 54-race winless drought.

Letarte understands that in order for Earnhardt and the team to take the next step and challenge for a Sprint Cup title this season, victories in addition to consistent finishes have to be part of the equation.

"It proves to us that we can compete with the best of the best," Letarte said of last year’s Chase effort, speaking on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s "The Morning Drive."  "There were races we wish we could have back.  We thought we had a great shot at Dover.  We thought we had a great shot at Homestead to win.  At Talladega, we didn’t quite get to run all the laps.  Good runs will (lead to) good years and we’re ready to have some great runs.

"We finished second in the Daytona 500 the last two years.  We're ready to finish one spot better at the big one to start the year off.  More than that, I’m ready to get to some downforce tracks.  There’s not one on the schedule where we don’t think we can go and compete for wins."

That quest begins this week with "Preseason Thunder" Testing at Daytona International Speedway.  Letarte believes simply having an opportunity to get his team to the racetrack will be beneficial in knocking the rust off from the short off-season.

"As much as we complain about the week-to-week grind, that's nice and competitive," Letarte said.  "You get into a rhythm and understand what everybody’s job is."

However, Letarte is well aware that testing at Daytona and then returning to "The World Center of Racing" for Budweiser Speedweeks is a world away from the true grind of the season that doesn’t begin until the first weekend of March.

"Daytona is such a different animal compared to the other 35 weeks," he said.  "You go to Speedweeks, you're there forever, you qualify different and practices are different.  So really, what happens is you show up at Phoenix (the following week) for practice Friday morning in a tight garage, you practice and qualify the same day, and you have a lot of big eyes in the garage area because it definitely changes how you go about things."

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