Rick Hendrick broke the news to Steve Letarte at around 3 o'clock in the afternoon in late November of 2010. About 15 minutes after being told that he would henceforth be overseeing the No. 88 team of NASCAR's most popular driver, Letarte was in his car, on his way to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s house. Even though they had worked under the same roof for three years to that point, the crew chief introduced himself as if they had never met.
"We started with a blank sheet of paper," Letarte remembered. "We didn't take any preconceived notions of what Dale's strengths or weaknesses were. I personally didn't listen to anybody else's opinions on Dale. I learned a lot from Mr. Hendrick on how to deal with people and with relationships, and the most important thing is to create your own relationship firsthand. Dale and I did that."
And so began the relationship that would help transform Earnhardt, slowly at first, from the black sheep of a dominant Hendrick Motorsports franchise to arguably the organization's top championship contender this season. Make no mistake, it was Earnhardt's name attached to that epic 143-race winless streak, which saddled him for more than four years. It was Earnhardt's name on the trophy that ultimately snapped the skid this past Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. But the road to that moment began in late 2010, directly on the heels of a second consecutive rotten season for the No. 88 team, when Hendrick shuffled his personnel and paired Earnhardt with a crew chief who proved capable of turning everything around.
Sunday was Earnhardt's moment and Earnhardt's triumph, clearly. But it was made possible in large part because of Letarte, who took plenty of grief asJeff Gordon's crew chief during that near-miss championship season of 2007, who even a week earlier at Pocono had drawn some raised eyebrows with an unpopular but necessary call to pit for fuel in the waning laps. For crew chiefs, that kind of second-guessing comes with waking up in the morning. None of that changes the indisputable fact that Letarte has been perhaps the singular catalyst in the rebuilding of both a program and a driver, that he instilled confidence, belief and professionalism within Earnhardt from almost the moment of his arrival, that over time he built cars capable of dominating a race just like they did at Michigan.
"He's hard to compliment, because he doesn't take it very well. But him and that team, they can have all the credit -- my engineers and Steve sit in that lounge every weekend and make the car go. You know, they make it turn. They make it whatever I want it to do. If I ask them, you know, this is my problem and this is where we are hurting, they get together and they fix it," Earnhardt said after the drought-buster in the Irish Hills.
"I just trust that he's looking out for, not for the best interests of just me. He looks out for the entire team and puts great people around himself to be able to do the job right. We have a good group. ... When you go to the shop and watch him kind of work, you can see how this team is as good as it is just by being in the shop and watching him sort of dictate and move pieces around like on a chessboard. He's really sharp."
Letarte brought with him so many things Earnhardt needed. The cars have been solid from almost day one, turning a variable into a constant, even if it took until Sunday to burst through the dam. He came in with a reputation for being able to keep his driver focused and upbeat in the car, able to head off episodes like the one Earnhardt suffered at New Hampshire in 2008, when he nearly melted down over a set of poorly matched tires and required Hendrick to come over the radio to talk him off the ledge. At the same time, Letarte began to demand things of Earnhardt that no other crew chief ever had. Fill out post-race reports. Attend meetings. Be ready to get to the track early, and stay there late.
That's the way the great Ray Evernham did it at Hendrick, the way Letarte and colleague Chad Knaus learned it. For all the support he offers over the radio, Letarte has a stern side to him, too. "Stevie, he can be extremely funny, and in a nanosecond he's very serious," Hendrick said. Earnhardt needed a little of a taskmaster; his first crew chief at Hendrick, Tony Eury Jr., was also his cousin, and it was difficult for the two to see each other as anything else. Earnhardt never really responded to Eury's successor, Lance McGrew. Enter Letarte, who brought with him a track record of winning races a certain way. Earnhardt bought into it.
"This is how this building has always operated," Letarte said, referring to the Hendrick organization. "It operated that way when Ray was here. I think Chad and I learned a lot from him, how he ran his race team. There are expectations set forth for every employee whether you're the tire man, engineer, engine man or the driver. The driver isn't a subcontractor, he's a team member. When you become a team member of the 88, you're expected to carry your end of the ship. That is not only the hard work you put in, but there's certain expectations and certain things needed. For the engineers to do their jobs as needed, certain times be available, certain expectations to come post race. I can't say enough about it. I think those expectations were laid out. They've been met 110 percent."
"Not everyone could have gone up there and sat down with Dale and said, 'Look, this is the way it's going to be, this is the way you have to show up,' " Hendrick added. "Stevie has a unique way of putting his arm around him and saying, 'Look, Bubba, we're in this together. Together we're going to do this. This is what I'm going to do, this is what I need you to do.' Dale felt comfortable and trusted Stevie. I don't think Stevie gets near the credit he deserves for getting Dale to feel all the things that Dale has to feel to be successful and be comfortable with the guys. To go from doubting what he had to feeling like he has the best in the garage, that's a tremendous job. I think it's probably the hardest job out there. So I just don't think Stevie gets near enough credit for what he's accomplished."
It was all made through much more than just meetings and tough love, though. Hendrick said Letarte worked hard to create a bond with Earnhardt, who doesn't let everyone in. The two traveled to test sessions together, flew to Las Vegas together to pick up Earnhardt's Most Popular Driver award a week after they were paired up. They took a methodical approach, one of improvement by degrees rather than leaps and bounds, and they became frustrated at times when they wanted it to happen more quickly than it did. But eventually it did happen, and now Earnhardt has a victory and is second in the championship standings, thanks in large part to a crew chief who figured out how to make NASCAR's most popular driver a winner once again.
"We use that word a lot, 'trust.' But Dale does not trust everybody," Hendrick said. "He doesn't think sometimes that he's taken in the right light. You see that more when his confidence isn't there. But when his confidence is switched on, I mean, he's convinced and he knows he's got the best in the garage. He believes that. He believes he's got the best crew chief and the best team. He believes this is what he's needed. Chemistry is so important. Sometimes, you never hit the right combination. But, man, I look back and I think we're very fortunate. Didn't have any idea it was going to be this good. But I think that the chemistry between these two guys, and I've been doing this for 30 years, is as good as or better than any I've ever seen."