DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Rick Hendrick made a surprise visit to his race shop 21 months ago. Within minutes the car owner and Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, were in his car on the way to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s house.
Hendrick sat down with both and they talked about racing, about life and everything else in between.
That’s when Letarte and Earnhardt made a connection that not only seems to have revived Earnhardt’s racing career, but gave NASCAR the bump it desperately needed.
Hendrick’s decision to move Letarte to Earnhardt’s car before the 2010 season is finally paying benefits. Earnhardt has a win this year – his first in four years – and he’s been the most-consistent driver by completing all 5,027 laps heading into Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at the Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt always had the talent and equipment, Hendrick said. He always had good mechanics and crew chiefs. But not until he was joined with Letarte did he have the missing ingredients – chemistry and trust.
It started with their first informal meeting with Hendrick, and it’s continued off the track. They share ideas that stretch far beyond the race track. They play basketball and softball together. They’ve learned to find a balance.
“We sat down kind of when the whole deal came together,” Letarte said. “He was completely on board, gave his opinion on things which were great.”
The two spent a day testing at the New Smyrna Speedway, not to find speed in the car, but to accelerate their relationship.
“From day forward, we have been all steam ahead,” Letarte said.
Not only is the son of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt a winner again, he’s a legitimate championship contender. He’s second in points and seemingly in contention to win every week
Hendrick is convinced Letarte is the reason why.
“I give him 100 percent total credit,” he said. “We use that word trust a lot. Dale does not trust everybody. He doesn’t think sometimes that he’s taken in the right light. You that that more when his confidence isn’t there.
“But when his confidence is switched on, I mean, he’s convinced 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 needed.”
Earnhardt started at Hendrick Motorsports with his cousin, Tony Eury Jr., as his crew chief. Lance McGrew was next, but he couldn’t gain Earnhardt’s faith either.
Letarte spent more than four years as Gordon’s crew chief with very limited success.
Together, Earnhardt and Letarte have redeemed themselves. The key to their success wasn’t nuts and bolts. It was friendship.
“Steve Letarte has made me calmer and more productive in the car,” Earnhardt said. “He gets more out of me as a driver and brings out the best in me. I’m better as completing races, putting together full races, not getting upset with the car, not getting frustrated and sort of botching the whole deal or sabotaging the race.
“I’ve got a lot more confidence. Confidence is half the battle when you’re out there competing. If you don’t have any confidence, you just can’t get anything done.”
Instead of spending hours on the computer and far from the public eye, Earnhardt has learned to enjoy all slices of life.
“My lifestyle changed quite a bit, especially this year as far as my hobbies and stuff,” he said. “I’m not racing online as much as I used to or spending as much time on the computer as I’m used to with my friends.”
He’s also joined a softball league.
A new girlfriend, Amy Reimann, has helped find even more balance.
“I think he’s happy in his life with his girlfriend,” Hendrick said. “I mean, I think life is good. I think he should be walking around with a ‘life is good’ hat on right now. He’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him.”
So is stock car racing.
Ratings bumped up the week following his victory June 17 at the Michigan International Speedway. It was just the fourth time in 17 races this year when ratings improved compared to last year.
“It’s good for the sport,” Hendrick said. “It’s good for him. I think it helps everybody.
“(It’s good) seeing him run up front every week, seeing him win a race, seeing him running for a championship, that’s just going to build the sport, the TV ratings, fans in the seats.”
And even better to have a friend he can trust.