It's a new season and a new beginning for Steve Letarte, who's shifted from heading up Jeff Gordon's crew to that of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. The new combo got off to a promising, if ultimately disappointing, start at Daytona, and now Steve's ready to answer your latest batch of questions. -Ed.
How hard is it to go racing with a new driver and learn all you have to learn before the season starts, when there's hardly any winter testing?
Andy, it's very hard to learn a new driver without any testing, and how quick you're able to do that will tell you how successful a year you can have. But that's the beauty of our situation – all I have to learn is a new driver. I have the same team, cars and building I had last year. Dale and I have remarkably similar personalities, and I think Mr. Hendrick recognizes those sorts of things when he matches people together. Personally, Dale and I get along very well; professionally, we'll only be able to know that when we're racing, week after week. I think we've done all the preparation we can do. Getting pole for the Daytona 500 was a good start and we got to the front from our back-row start. It's now time to go put that preparation into the heat of battle every weekend. I'm sure there will be items after each race that we can readjust and learn from and continue to improve.
I expected changes at Hendrick but I was surprised when you got Junior. Not a hater, not a fan, just interested. Do you plan to operate any different methods in style or do you think the way you worked with Jeff might light a fire under Junior?
That's a two-part question. First of all, regarding method or style, I am who I am. If I change what kind of crew chief I am, or don't go with my own theories or own style, then I'm not going to be very successful. I'm not about to copy Chad Knaus [No. 48], Alan Gustafson  or Lance McGrew  and any head coach or any executive in any company realizes that you have to be honest with yourself and go about your business in your own style. Win, lose or draw, you'll sleep better at night knowing you did it your way.
Regarding your other point, I feel Dale Jr. is extremely excited – there is a fire under him, he wants to be competitive and win. I asked him to do quite a few things over the off-season in preparation for this season, and he did every one of them to my expectations or beyond. I'm excited. I wish Jeff all the luck in the world, and I'm very fortunate to have known him all these years. I'm a crew chief in this sport because of Jeff and I hope he'll be successful with Alan. I do think we hit on things last year that improved Jeff's performance and mine, especially earlier in the year, and we are going to use some of those methods to improve the 88's performance. I think Dale sees there is a difference: this building, this race team and my group operate different than Lance's group. Not good or bad – just different. And I think what Mr. Hendrick is looking for is change. We have to have success. Jeff and I are best of friends but we didn't succeed on the racetrack. We each need to do that and that's what the goals are for both the 88 and the 24.
I haven't seen how this has played out. Did the entire 24 crew become the 88 crew, or did everyone but you stick where they were, so you're now in charge of a whole group of different people? Is that just as hard as learning to work with a new driver? Anyhow, good luck.
The constant question about Hendrick Motorsports in the off-season has been this one, and the answer is very simple: we have swapped drivers. We didn't swap crews and didn't swap crew chiefs: we swapped drivers. With the drivers came the paint schemes and the seat, and that's it. We have the cars, crew and shop from last year; we just repainted them and put Dale's seat in instead of Jeff's. That is pretty much the swap. I have my same shop, same office, same chair, same laptop.
Is it hard to work with a new driver? I wish I could tell you! This is my 17th year in NASCAR and my first new driver! So far it's been pretty good, and although there will be tests along the way, how we respond to those tests will be the proof of how well we've learned each other.
I was really sorry to see you leave Jeff after so many years, but pleased you've stuck with Hendrick. What were your favorite moments of the past 15 years? Go on, take us down memory lane, when men were men and Cup cars looked good….
Robert, I have so many memories of 15 years, but I guess I have to find ones that are appropriate for RACER.com!
Well, I started with Hendrick in 1996 as a high school kid who didn't know much about racecars other than that my dad had worked on them my whole life and I knew how we raced. In the 15 years I've worked here, Mr. Hendrick, Jeff Gordon, Ray Evernham, Robbie Loomis, Brian Weitzel – I could fill this entire page with a list of people who have molded or changed me and my opinion of what I could do. What are my favorite memories? I remember very, very vividly winning the 1998 championship in the final race in Atlanta. I vividly remember winning the 2001 championship, working under Robbie Loomis as I moved up in the company from being a tire man and took on a mechanic role. And I remember my first win as Jeff's crew chief at Martinsville in 2005. That was the culmination of many, many years of my dad teaching me how to race and also a lot of hard work. To win at the highest level in NASCAR as a crew chief? No matter what I accomplished from there on, that would be my best memory in racing.
Robert, you also mentioned the looks of the cars. I think the cars look amazingly better in 2011. The lower fascia change at the front alone has really made a difference. OK, it's still not as good as my dream car from the end of 2007, but to be honest, I'm getting so used to the looks of these cars, I guess the old one would look weird now and, like I say, for 2011, they've really improved.