Under NASCAR's old scoring system, Steve Letarte would have been hailed as the championship crew chief this year. But Letarte, along with driver Jeff Gordon, settled for second place after Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson won four consecutive races in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Letarte talked about his season recently and how the team concept works at Hendrick. Here are excerpts of that interview:
Question: What did you learn from your experience in this year's Chase?
Letarte: The Chase has definitely accomplished what I think NASCAR was looking for. The pressure and the stress and the news is definitely higher when it comes down to a 10-race playoff. I was fortunate enough to be part of some championship teams under the old points system. We had a few tight runs down to Atlanta. But realistically they were usually wrapped up with one or two to go. You had to go to Atlanta finishing somewhere in the mid to high 20s. The Chase definitely changed that. As far as my experience in the Chase, I've just learned to not underestimate your performance, not underestimate your opponent. I think while we've definitely hit our goals at some tracks, we've missed them at others. We're finishing like we need to every other year but this year. So you have to take every year for what it's worth and go out there and you need to shoot to win 10 races.
Question: As the season came down to the final couple races, did your team and Johnson's team continue to share notes?
Letarte: We get that question a lot. To be honest, it's hard for people to understand our concept here. We share everything. It's a complete open book. I mean, it's the way the company's set up. It's the way our engineering is set up. It's the way Chad and I work. All four cars are an open book to one another from week one at Daytona testing all the way to the final laps at Homestead. We share air pressures during the race, pit strategies, setup information all weekend along. It definitely doesn't change when we get into the Chase. If anything, it gets a little bit tighter. We go out of our way a little bit more in the Chase to make sure we understand what each of us has so we know come the end of the race we both knew what each other had and what we were going against.
Question: Do you blame yourself for not winning the championship?
Letarte: Well, to set the record straight, I do put a lot of blame on myself. That's the position I'm in. I feel I'm very proud of what we've accomplished since we took over in 2005. I don't feel this was a championship team. I don't even feel it was a team that deserved to make the Chase in 2005, which I was a part of. We didn't have very good cars. We didn't have a very good pit crew. We made a lot of mistakes. I feel we've done a very good job of getting the 24 car and Jeff Gordon back into contention, back into winning races, back into leading laps and back into leading the points. I'm very proud of what we've accomplished there. I would be a very poor crew chief if I didn't take a big portion of this blame and say that we didn't run well enough because the cars weren't well enough and the setups didn't work. That's what falls on my shoulders. That's why I love the position I'm in and maybe that's why I don't sleep some nights.
Question: Jeff Gordon isn't going to have too many more opportunities like he had in 2007 to win a championship. Are you frustrated you let this one slip away?
Letarte: The Chase works twofold. It's definitely not been the kindest to us, but I think that's our own fault. We haven't run like we needed in the final 10 races. The rules are written at the beginning of the year. Everybody is aware of them. We're not going to make excuses. We need to just step up our game and run better in these final 10. But at the same time it gives hope to those years likes last year where we really weren't a championship contender for the first 26 races. We made it into the Chase. We gave it a good run for the first four or five races of the Chase before we ran into some bad luck.
Question: Do you remind yourself that under the old rules you would have won the championship?
Letarte: No, I don't even look at the old points system. I race today. If you look at the old points system or look at what could have, should have, you're just making excuses for the performance you had during the season. I think if we could go down there and get his name on another record with 30 top 10s. There's very few records out there to have any more. Every one we can get his name next to is a positive note for this team. We don't really look at the past. We don't look at the past history. I think Jeff said it the best. You can't compare old championships to new championships under this points system. I am not going to compare last year's points or the old series to this series.
Compiled by Don Coble. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.