is honored to have one of NASCAR's most widely respected crew chiefs, Steve Letarte, join our rank of columnists. Not only that, the No.24 Hendrick Motorsports guru is inviting you to write in to firstname.lastname@example.org
and ask him anything and everything about life at Hendrick, working with Jeff Gordon, his opinion on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rule book, the difference in car setup between qualifying and race, how to make the No. 24 car quick at tracks as diverse as Bristol and Daytona… It's your chance to learn about NASCAR from an expert and covering topics not covered in TV broadcasts.
Each month, Steve will answer the best questions and post them on RACER.com. And just to prove how frank he is in his replies, we grabbed the opportunity to ask him about the revival in Jeff Gordon's fortunes from 2008 to '09…
RACER: Just before the final round of 2007, there was an interview with Jeff Gordon in the USA Today in which he said that the setup of his car was so different from Jimmie Johnson's that he couldn't just transfer the No. 48 car's settings to the No. 24 and expect to go quick. Can you elaborate?
LETARTE: Yeah, Jeff and Jimmie drive very differently from one another. Jimmie tends to drive a lot with the throttle and very little with the steering-wheel. Jeff is the opposite: he does a lot with the steering-wheel, and very little with the throttle pedal. So the inputs they receive back from the car are tremendously different. Jeff needs resistance to the steering-wheel, where Jimmie needs response to power-down, and so those two ways of driving require very different car setups to be successful. At some tracks, they're closer than others, but that's just coincidence: at Martinsville, they're very, very close on chassis setup, whereas Pocono and Indy they're really quite different.
R: Does that have its roots in their different background?
LETARTE: Yes, some of it is to do with their routes into NASCAR, and a lot of it is to do with their time spent in NASCAR. Jeff has a long, long history here. When he came in 16 or 17 years ago, the chassis, tires and aerodynamics were so different that he learned a signature way to drive that was very comfortable for him – and, of course, very successful! So it's hard for someone to change their own signature.
R: Was that part of the explanation for Jeff not winning last year – the struggle to adapt his style to the so-called Car of Tomorrow?
LETARTE: I think that definitely was a percentage in our lack of success last year. But overall, I'd say we just didn't have fast enough cars when we got them comfortable. The biggest problem that a crew chief faces with the current car is this: With the cars of the past and with a talent like Jeff's, if the car drove well, we were fast. Period. But with this car, that is not the case. We had very comfortable cars last year that were just fifth- or tenth-placed cars. And it took a year of flat getting beat, week in, week out, for us to see that here was a new facet: just because Jeff was comfortable with the car, didn't mean we'd got the fastest setup. He and I both had to buy into this new philosophy, and once we did, we used lap times to judge our racecar a lot more than we had in the past.
R: So would you go as far as to say that Jeff is having to live with less optimal handling and just suck it up and realize that will make him fast?
LETARTE: Well, put it this way: where five years ago, I'd have used 90 percent of Jeff Gordon feedback and 10 percent of lap time and car speed, now it's nearer 50/50. And I don't let him worry about it: I do it myself. So, if in the race, Jeff tells me the car is really, really loose, but I can see he's going really, really fast, I don't adjust it at pitstops. I just politely tell him that his lap times are very good so we're going to leave it where it is, and I think he has enough trust in me that he doesn't speak up if he feels he can hold onto it all day. But he also has enough confidence that if he thinks it's too much, or that he might get into an accident, he'll admit it and we'll make it a little more comfortable for him in the middle of the race. Then at the end, we'll free it back up and he's just going to have to hold onto it for the final run.
The other big thing is – and I think a lot of people confuse this – there is a difference between loose-and-fast, and loose-and-ill-handling. I think last year we saw a lot of cars that were free and fast, and when we freed ours up, it really just became ill-handling and didn't go any faster. This year, we've changed some of the dynamics of the car, which has worked well, and Jeff can be fast with a car that isn't so comfortable for him.
R: I'm amazed to hear that changeover in balance of lap-speed and driver comfort level has altered so radically in such a short period of time. It must annoy you when people say these cars are backward or lost in the past.
LETARTE: It frustrates me a little. Yes, we are behind in technology per se, because we still have a truck-arm suspension and things like that, but I was raised to race what there is. So when people spend a lot of energy saying all the things that are wrong with the car, I tell them you just need to work on it, and make it the best it can be. I think the majority of the American race fans really relate to these cars and they like the closed-wheel, door-to-door action that these cars can provide. I think you could make them trick, fuel-injected, give them a rocker-arm suspension – make a much fancier racecar – but NASCAR's had a direction they've stuck with for a lot of years now and it appears to be very successful. Year in and year out, they put on a lot of races, and a lot of them are very good.
R: So as specifically as you feel you can go, what changes were made to the 24 car over the winter? Were they less than the changes you and Jeff made to how you approached setting up the car?
LETARTE: I think we found speed within our cars, but they're not huge changes. This year, we've raced some of the same cars we raced last year, with 95 percent of the same parts. We changed a few theories and that really helped, but I really believe the biggest change for us was how we approached every weekend, every practice and every race.It got to a point last year – and everyone had a hand in it – where we simply didn't have a strong enough group to beat some of our competitors. I'm a stat guy, and I believe the No. 1 stats in our sport are Laps Led and Top Five finishes. If you can't run in the top five, or lead laps, then you aren't going to win races. You can't win from 10th or 15th – although very occasionally you'll get exceptions to that rule of course.
Brian Vickers at Michigan last weekend is a perfect example. he won at Michigan because he had opportunities to win in the last five or ten races. He didn't just all of a sudden win a race: he's been building up momentum to that point, and I believe that's almost always the case with winners. In 2008, we had no momentum: we had no races that I felt we really had a legitimate shot at winning. We put ourselves in position and we gave ourselves a chance now and again. But we never went out with a car that just dominated and led laps, and that's what you need to do.
R: Given what you had to sort out last winter, did your heart sink when the testing restrictions were imposed? Or was it the opposite – that is to say, if anyone can overcome that situation, it's Hendrick Motorsports?
LETARTE: Well, I'm a fan of no testing, for multiple reasons. The first is Jeff's experience level. Given his length of time in the sport, he can adapt to the racetrack, and in an hour's practice, he can give you the feedback you need better than anyone. Second, the strength of our company: we've been doing a very good job the last four or five years, preparing with tools, simulations, seven-post rigs, wind tunnels, and so on. We do a lot of non-track testing, and we have for a number of years, so I believe when they limited track testing, we had a really good foundation to build on. Third, when you're teamed with Jimmie Johnson who has won so many races the past three years, it gives the company a good direction. If we had just Jeff Gordon in a one-car team and struggled like we did in 2008, I don't feel we could have recovered to be as good as we are this year. It's good to have such a strong teammate to lean on.
R: And there's a completely free exchange of data there between the 48 and 24?
LETARTE: All the employees work on both cars: there are no lines drawn in the sand. This is really one team that races two cars. But as far as the data and all the information is concerned, it's one team that races four cars. I can see everything on all four cars, no different than Alan [Gustafson] on Mark Martin's No. 5 can see all my stuff.
R: Is it frustrating to have all the data acquisition available to you in testing and then be restricted to notepads and calculators on a race weekend?
LETARTE: Yeah, it's frustrating. Because as close as the competition is, you can be quarter of an inch out with your front splitter height and that can define you being average, good or great, and without data, it's very, very hard to measure those sorts of things. So it's frustrating not to have that data. But that goes back to the nine or ten people you bring to the races with you at the weekend. I think we do a good job with pictures, video, driver input and lap time to collect as much allowable data as possible.
R: So that improves the prospects of drivers with good technical knowledge and feedback?
LETARTE: Yes… but feedback and technical knowledge aren't the same thing. Jeff is short on technical knowledge of the car, for instance, but he is so very honest and accurate with his feedback and feel. It's his biggest strength. If he does not run the best lap, he'll be the first to tell me, so I don't base decisions from a lap time that he feels has been unrepresentative because he made a mistake. Jeff can't tell you if it's right-rear spring, right-rear shock or front swaybar that needs adjusting, but he can take a track map or driver data from a previous test and tell you at any specific spot on the racetrack exactly what the car is doing. That's very impressive, and very important for the engineers and myself to dissect. So what I'm saying is, Jeff doesn't give us direction on what needs to be changed on the chassis: he is just specific on how the car reacts to the steering wheel, brake pedal or gas pedal. He's all about driver input and location on the racetrack.
R: Remind us which of the tracks you haven't won at and do you approach those with a sense of “Oh hell, it's a bogey track again,” or with a sense of urgency to finally nail it?
LETARTE: When I took over as crew chief [two thirds of the way through 2005] we had Phoenix, Chicago, Texas and Homestead, where Jeff hadn't won. And with his resume the way it is, it's very frustrating: If you win a championship, well, other people have won a championship with him; If you win a Daytona 500 with him, others have done that, too! So I put a lot of weight on the tracks that he hasn't won at. And we've been very fortunate since then to have won at Phoenix, Chicago and Texas. Phoenix and Texas are the biggest wins of my career, huge milestones – even though I've been with the 24 crew through years of Daytona 500 wins and championship wins – because Texas and Phoenix have been on the championship schedule for so long.
So now all that's left is Homestead, and I can't wait to get there! It's our biggest challenge, we put our most effort into trying to give Jeff something that no one's ever given him before. Problem is, Homestead will be difficult because it's the last race, and so of course there are points implications…
Now it's your turn. Email ask-letarte@RACER.com .