Commentary

Attention to detail nothing new for crew chief Letarte

Steve Letarte knows his priorities in life. Family comes first for Jeff Gordon's crew chief, but there's a little thing called the Chase that demands his attention.

Updated: November 9, 2007, 5:45 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Both children of Steve and Tricia Letarte have birthdays later this month, five days apart. It's no coincidence.

"We planned it that way," Letarte said seriously. "We wanted it to happen after the season ended, but we cut it a little close on both of them."

Now that's focused, and a great example on how organized Letarte is in every aspect of his life. He can't wait for the birthdays, but Letarte has a little work situation to focus on for the moment.

Letarte is trying to lead Jeff Gordon to his fifth Nextel Cup championship, which would be the first for Letarte as a crew chief. Gordon is 30 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson with two races to go entering the Checker's Auto Parts 500 Sunday. It's a classic battle between the two teams that have dominated the 2007 season, but it's all new for Letarte.

Or is it?

"That's the big misconception in this," Letarte said Friday. "I guess it's new for this particular job, but Ray [Evernham] designed this team a long time ago where we all felt important. If you were a tire guy or a mechanic and we were fighting for the championship, then that was the most important position in the world.

"It didn't matter what job you did on the car, you felt the pressure. But it was a good pressure. It definitely helped me prepare for this."

Letarte, 28, was a tire specialist and a mechanic in three of Gordon's championship seasons. He's been a part of the No. 24 crew since he was 16 years old. No one knows Letarte better than Evernham, the man who was his boss for five seasons when Evernham was Gordon's crew chief. Knaus also was a part of those teams, so who does Evernham thinks has the advantage right now?

"Both are smart guys," Evernham said Friday. "But it's hard to compare them because they're different. Chad is very intense. Steve is very intelligent. I guess I'll give Chad the edge just because of experience."

Many people see Letarte and Knaus as the good cop/bad cop duo at Hendrick, with Letarte being the good cop. Knaus is viewed as a fiery Vince Lombardi type while Letarte is more of a Tom Landry kind of leader. Like Landry, the fire is there for Letarte, just not on the surface.

"I have it, I just don't show it," Letarte said."That's where people get it wrong about me and Chad. I think our personalities are much closer than people realize. We're cut from the same cloth. We want the same things; we just apply them in a different way."

The drill sergeant approach doesn't work for Letarte. He's a positive reinforcement guy.

"I'm more of a people person, I guess," Letarte said."I want to talk to people and learn about the personal lives of my crew, about their families and the things they enjoy beyond racing.

"And I've always felt that if I hire the right people who want it bad enough, I don't need to push them. I need to direct them, lead them, console them and make sure I give them the things they need to do there jobs the way it needs to be done."

That relaxed approach is put to the test now with the pressure and intensity of a close championship battle against the guys Letarte and his crew work with every day. And they still work together in every aspect of preparation. The two teams don't go to the track now and keep secrets from each other.

What It Takes To Win The Chase

Jimmie Johnson

Johnson

Déjà vu? In 2006, Jimmie Johnson took over the Chase lead with two races left in the season en route to winning his first Cup title. This year, he takes a larger points lead to Phoenix, and only five other drivers are still in contention for the Nextel Cup championship.

Jeff Gordon is the closest competitor but will be challenged in his attempt to retake the lead, considering how well Johnson has raced lately. Gordon could win at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami (the final two races) and still not win the title.

Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart are still alive mathematically. However, they need a monumental collapse by Johnson, in addition to gaining the maximum points in the last two events, to have a chance to win the Chase.

The following scenarios show how each driver could finish ahead of Johnson in the final two races (each scenario holds true regardless of whether Johnson leads a lap in each race, unless otherwise specified):

Chase Chances
1. Jimmie Johnson Chase leader
2. Jeff Gordon
(-30 points)
If he finishes nine places better than Johnson in both of the next two races, or if he wins out and leads the most laps in each event
3. Clint Bowyer
(-181)
If he wins out and leads the most laps in each event, and Johnson averages a 22nd-place finish or worse
4. Kyle Busch
(-339)
If he wins out and leads the most laps in each event, and Johnson does not start one race and finishes 40th or worse in the other race
5. Carl Edwards
(-357)
If he wins out and leads the most laps in each event, and Johnson does not start the final two races
6. Tony Stewart
(-373)
If he wins out and leads the most laps in each event, and Johnson does not start the final two races
Drivers 7-12 Eliminated from championship contention

"It's not even possible," Letarte said. "People just don't understand the system here. They think sharing is Chad bringing over a piece of paper with numbers on it. It's not like that.

"My engineer can click a button on his lap to and see any setup for any car at Hendrick Motorsports. And we can see any notes. If I grab my book of notes from the April race here, I have copies on every team's notes from that event."

Letarte said it would go against everything the organization stands for to try separate things now: "If we lose that, then we were hypocrites the other 34 weeks."

But it doesn't mean the 48 and 24 are the same.

"The difference is we don't have the same driver," Letarte said. "If you put Jeff in Jimmie's car, he would hate it. If Jimmie got in our car, he would hate it."

Letarte has to figure out what Gordon needs to make the 24 Chevy better than the 48. And he has to do it against the man many people believe is the best crew chief in the business. It's a high-stress environment, but ironically, it's Knaus who helps Letarte handle it.

"Chad and I are very good friends," Letarte said."He's done a good job of explaining what I might feel or go through, especially with the media. We lean a lot on one another."

Letarte also has a four-time Cup champion to lean on.

"For 15 years, Jeff's been in the bull's-eye, whether he was running for a championship or not," Letarte said. "The thing I've learned from Jeff more than anything else is the way he carries himself. In the heat of the moment, I don't think there's anyone better."

Letarte has some good examples to follow on how to work with a championship on the line. Feeling butterflies isn't part of the process.

"There's no room for nerves," he said. "Once that first practice starts, you are totally focused on that moment. If you're not, it's not going to be very successful.

"The worst time is when you try to go to bed at night.You lay down to go to sleep thinking about the things you need to work on tomorrow. But that's not new. It's like that for 36 weeks."

The saving grace each week for Letarte is his family.

"That's the beautiful thing for me," he said. "My boy [Tyler, soon to be 4] wants me to go with him and play in his room. My little girl [Ashlyn, almost 2] wants to show me her dolls and watch a video. They're how I celebrate the victories and how I recover from the defeats."

Letarte said defeat is not an option now. He expects to win Sunday on the 1-mile Phoenix oval. He also expects to win the championship next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. What if that doesn't happen?

"I'm going to be a little cranky and probably not the best guy to come find," he said. "We're going to lay it all on the line in these two events."

But Letarte has it all in perspective.

"Come next Sunday at Homestead, nothing will be more important to me than winning that championship," he said. "But when I wake up Monday morning, I have birthday parties to plan."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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