Junior's Crew Chief Has Unfinished Business at Bank of America 500
Nobody could ever accuse Steve Letarte of being a late bloomer.
In 1996, when most 16-year-olds were serving up burgers at a local fast food joint, Letarte was already working full time for Hendrick Motorsports. A year later he was a tire specialist, then a mechanic and by 2002, at the ripe old age of 22, he was a car chief.
By 25, Letarte had secured the position of crew chief for four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. And six races into that job he earned his very first win as a crew chief, at Martinsville Speedway.
Now, in his 20th year with Hendrick Motorsports, Letarte is in the midst of his fourth season as crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is winding down one of his best seasons ever. Letarte, now considered one of the premier crew chiefs in the garage, just may be engineering what would be his - and Earnhardt's - first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship season.
And if that happens, it would also be Letarte's last title because at the end of the season he will make a significant career change, moving into the broadcast booth for NBC Sports, NASCAR's new television partner.
To say the move caught most in the racing world off guard is an understatement. At age 35, Letarte had many great years ahead of him, working for the best team in racing and with NASCAR's most popular driver. But for him, it just seemed the prime time to make a significant change in his life.
"In my mind, I saw myself doing this for many years," he said. "I've been part of Hendrick since I was 16 and at that time my career was my priority. I guess when you look at it; I've always done things early. I started in racing young, I had kids early, so why not semi-retire from racing and move into a second career?"
With the decision to move into television made, Letarte still has plenty he'd like to achieve before giving up his crew chief duties, and winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship is at the top of the list. But that's no different than any other year.
"The goal, every year, is to win a championship, without a doubt," he said. "I've never won one as a crew chief but I have been part of teams that have won some. That is the peak in any sport, to win the championship.
"Right now, I'm just looking at the next race and I honestly never think ahead."
He has, however, tried to envision what it would feel like to hoist the 2014 champion's trophy.
"To be honest, I can't really fathom it," he said. "I know how exciting it was to win Daytona this year and I think it would be something like that to win a championship, even better I guess. Really though, I can't even dream what it would be like."
He does, however, know what winning at Charlotte Motor Speedway means and how significant it would be for him and Earnhardt to do it at the Bank of America 500. While Earnhardt has won a NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at the 1.5-mile track, he has yet to score a points victory.
"That would be so great," said Letarte. "Charlotte is a unique place. I drive by it every day going to work. There's extra pride in the hometown race and to win this one, because of where it is in the Chase, it could propel you to the championship.
Letarte has won at Charlotte Motor Speedway, grabbing the checkered flag for the October race back in 2007 with Gordon. That memory is still one of his favorites.
"I remember standing in victory lane that there was a huge sense of accomplishment," he said. "I mean, it's the center of the racing community. There's prestige with Daytona and Indianapolis but we drive by Charlotte Motor Speedway every day and you want to have success there.
"That was seven years ago and I still remember how we won it, all the pit calls we made, the setup in the car. So yeah, it was a special win at a special track."
Can he return to his winning ways in Charlotte and propel NASCAR's most popular driver to the next round in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup? Fans won't have to wait long to find out.
Tickets to the Bank of America 500 are still available. Fans can catch all the weekend action from Bojangles' Pole Night, the NASCAR Nationwide Series Drive for the Cure 300 presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and the Bank of America 500 with weekend packages starting at just $99.
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