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.
Which of the three new HMS driver/crew chief combinations will win first and will any of you win before the 48? You wish, right?!
The million-dollar question, huh?! I fully expect the 88 car to be competitive in Phoenix this weekend, as it was last weekend at Daytona. I don't think there's going to be a huge learning curve. More important than who will win first is that all four cars win this year. Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus made 2010 look like a great year for Hendrick Motorsports, but if you removed the 48, we had a pretty dismal season. We had one other car in the top 10 on points, and three teams with zero wins. That's not how this company was built, it's not how this company is run, and it's not what anyone in this company expects. While we'd all love to be the first driver/crew chief combination to win for Mr. Hendrick this year, the most important thing is to get all four combinations winning again.
The interesting thing about Daytona is that we had a new driver, a new nose on the car and a new track surface and I don't know if we can yet fully differentiate which was the biggest factor in our performance there. So as we go to Phoenix and Las Vegas, it will be very important to evaluate where we stack up versus the other Hendrick cars, because that's been a very consistent baseline for us over the past couple years: the 48 car has been the strongest, and it's no secret that the 88 has been the weakest. So our best measuring stick will be internally because the four teams within our company all have the same tools.
Given the realigning of personnel at Hendrick over the winter, how much of a say did you have? Did Mr. Hendrick just sit you down and say, “This is your job for 2011” or did he consult with you and Alan Gustafson and Lance McGrew? Does he consult with the drivers, too? Were you Junior's pick?
All legitimate questions and I can reply only with the answers I have. Was I involved in every meeting from the start? No. Nor is that really my place. We have an executive group here at Hendrick Motorsports – two vice presidents, a president and then we have the owner, Mr. Hendrick, at the top. I'm sure they had conversations before I was involved, but I also know it wasn't a case of them sitting me down and saying, “This is your job!” Mr. Hendrick is an amazing man; I've learned that he's a leader who takes control but does it in such a manner that everyone has a vote. It doesn't feel like a dictatorship at all. So he asked my opinion, then laid out what he thought was a successful plan and wanted to know if I agreed or disagreed. I agreed with a lot of things he came up with, and we did it.
Funny thing is, on the outside it seemed huge, but on the inside it just felt like a change within a company brand. We aren't four race teams: we're Hendrick Motorsports, and I think Mr. Hendrick's idea to swap just the drivers but not the crew chief and personnel and buildings was an excellent one. I think it's going to be a huge gain for all three teams. I applaud Jeff, a man who, pre-Jimmie Johnson, carried the flag for Hendrick Motorsports. He has taken a huge step and I think he and Alan will work great together. Things like that prove that everyone has bought in to the HMS plan: if Jeff Gordon hadn't bought into it, this wouldn't work and if Dale or Mark Martin weren't on board, this wouldn't work. Everyone had opinions. I wasn't with Alan or Lance when Mr. Hendrick talked to them, but from where I stood, I think we've moved in the right direction.
Welcome to Junior Nation, buddy! Are you aware of the extra pressure on Little E's crew chiefs? Will it bother you that he gets the credit when he wins, and the team gets slammed if he sucks? Are you ready for the hardest job in racing?!
I know there'll be extra pressure, Kerry, but I've said this before: everyone wants to know if it's such a huge step from Jeff Gordon to Dale Jr. and I'm sure it's going to be. But nothing I experience in my work life will be as big as the step I took in 2005 when I walked into Loudon as Jeff Gordon's crew chief for the first time. I was a no-name, nobody car chief who worked hard and knew a lot about racecars but if you'd asked the 100 media members who were at Loudon before then what my name was, 10 of them might have known it. But when I walked out of the truck that Friday morning at Loudon in the fall, all 100 knew my name. And that, by far, is the biggest step and biggest change I've ever encountered in my life.
So am I ready for the pressure? Bring it on. There's no one out there who can put more pressure on me than I put on myself. I was raised by my dad at tracks on Saturday nights to know there's nothing more important in this business than performing and winning. He taught me long ago that the most important page in any sports section of the paper was the back page with the results and that everything else was just a good story. So that's what I want to do: get the results. Toughest job in motorsports? We'll see…but I'm excited by the challenge.
NASCAR's new points system looks a bad deal to me. Everyone will baby the cars in the closing laps because it's not worth risking a pass on someone. What's your opinion? What's the opinion within the sport (when there's no one on TV recording…)? NASCAR's not on at a good time of day for me anyway (I'm based in Germany) so please give me a reason to stay up to the end of a long race on the West Coast…
Ryan, this is an easy one to answer. If at any point you think the points system affects how a driver's driving, I completely disagree. We are all competitors, through and through and from start to finish. If we are second, we want to be first; if we're 22nd we want to be 21st. Points or no points, it makes no difference. If you think it does, then you'd assume everyone bar the leaders would coast the last lap of the Bud Shootout because there aren't points involved. Well, that doesn't happen. The 10th-place guy going down the backstretch doesn't lift just because he thinks he can't win. He's going to go for the pass on the ninth-placed car.
I don't think the points will make or break how you race. I applaud NASCAR for making the math simpler, but also retaining that pressure to improve your placing in the closing laps. Nothing will change for the drivers: racing instinct takes over.
How much of a relationship did you have with Dale before this year? Did you talk much? What's his feedback like compared with Jeff? Any thoughts about his strengths and weaknesses? I know, you've only done tests and a couple races with him so far, but you probably have an idea by now. Lance probably told you.
Well, let's start from the last of your comments, Jemma. I can promise you that my relationship with Dale Jr. is on a first-hand basis. While I appreciate everyone's opinions, I've learned not to judge people from second or third opinions, or from print media or from TV. Only from first-hand dealings with people. That's how Dale and I will work: if I have a question for him, I'll ask him. I don't ask his old crew chief or his business manager. I've always found more success with that.
Regarding his feedback, it's different because he's not Jeff. It's very good feedback, but it's different, and I'll have to develop the right questions to ask. Strengths and weaknesses? While I have opinions on both, I try not to talk about them in the media. I have strengths and weaknesses as well, and I'd appreciate it if Dale lets me know where he feels my weaknesses are because that's part of his job, and vice versa. He's a remarkable racecar driver with a tremendous amount of talent and drive. We're excited this year to try to give him a consistent foundation which he can operate on and show those strengths. That's going to be fundamental and also fun.
Have the calendar re-arrangements made any big differences to how well Hendrick might run in 2011? I'm real cut up about Atlanta losing a date (I was born in Doraville) but Kentucky may be good. Anyhow, what do you think? Good luck, Steve.
Thanks for your best wishes, Mike. I'm of the opinion – and this is purely my opinion – that the races in the Chase should be rotated every year. I feel the final 10 races are hugely important, and I'd love to have different tracks being a part of that from year to year. I'm a huge fan of going everywhere in the country so something else I'd do in my perfect world is go to 36 venues this year, instead of 36 races at 20-something venues. I love to go to different tracks, see different parts of the country and face different challenges. We have fans all across the country and around the world, and I think it's our responsibility as a sport to bring our show to them.
As for the other changes, I'm excited that we're going to Phoenix straight after Daytona. After a 2.5-miler, it'll be great to go to a short track and beat and bang a little bit. I understand your disappointment over Atlanta – I love going there – but I think Kentucky deserved a date, because it's a fabulous venue. I think there'll be just as many disappointed people in Atlanta as there are excited people at Kentucky. There have been rumors that maybe we'll hit Kentucky a day early to get a test day there, but that hasn't been confirmed. Anyway, a lot of the Cup teams have been testing there for years, so it's not a completely new venue for us. Don't expect a major mix-up in order. You can take the cars that ran good at Chicago and Kansas and expect they'll do a good job at Kentucky.
Thanks for all your questions and keep them coming! Just email firstname.lastname@example.org.