Commentary

Welcome to the jungle, Steve Letarte

Updated: February 3, 2011, 2:23 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. refused to do this, but invited me to.

"I'm not going to compare who I've worked with in the past with Steve," Earnhardt said, meaning Steve Letarte, the bullet-train personality paired with Earnhardt in the offseason crew chief swaps at Hendrick Motorsports.

"But," Earnhardt quickly added, "you guys have a good view on your side of the fence of how those comparisons are."

Oh, yes. We've watched them all go by, taking their turns in the most scrutinized, criticized, pressurized, damn-near impossible job in NASCAR.

You sit on Earnhardt's pit box, you take the fall every time, always with and usually for the most idolized, scrutinized, criticized driver in NASCAR.

Nothing can prepare a crew chief fully for that, but sitting on Jeff Gordon's pit box for the past five years is close. Charged with reviving Gordon's career, Letarte managed 10 wins -- but only one in the past three seasons. So he knows what heat feels like.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
Rusty Jarrett/NASCAR/Getty Images Jeff Gordon and Steve Letarte, right, combined for 10 wins over the past five seasons.

"Steve is a strong personality," said Lance McGrew, the most recent man battered down from the hot seat, the crew chief Letarte replaces. "If anybody can shoulder it, it would be him, for sure."

Recent records were by no means all that team owner Rick Hendrick considered in sending Letarte to Earnhardt, McGrew from Earnhardt to Mark Martin and Alan Gustafson from Martin to Gordon.

"The man is a genius in putting the right people in the right places," McGrew said. Plus, Hendrick bolsters his brilliance with a scientific psychological testing system for matching personalities and synchronizing work habits.

So when Letarte says, "I think Dale Jr. and I will be a great mix," that's more than an optimistic guess.

For openers, Letarte perceives that Earnhardt "rides a little bit more of a roller coaster than I do. If I can flatten out that roller coaster and keep it a little more on the positive side, he'll have more success."

Through his tenure with Gordon, Letarte was a dynamo of positivity, a locomotive pulling his team's attitude along a fast track, no matter what. This is not to say he didn't get derailed personally sometimes, such as when he made what he deemed a race-losing call. But he never took the train with him. He kept it to himself, and could bounce back overnight.

As for the intensity of this furnace, "I haven't felt any change yet," Letarte said. "Shame on me, but I expect to go to Victory Lane. When I wake up every morning, I put enough pressure on myself, because I feel I have all the tools. … I have all the financial backing. I have a great driver. …

"So I haven't felt any more pressure than we've already felt in years past."

We'll see as the season unfolds. As for McGrew, after one and two-thirds seasons of trying to please Earnhardt and his nation of fans, I had to ask whether the rotation caused him a huge sigh of relief.

"I don't know how you could say that it didn't," McGrew said with the calm candor of a man who has survived a storm. "Junior Nation is strong and big, and they expect a lot."

We've heard the Earnhardt roller coaster nosedive midrace via team radio, as he snarls and swears at crew chiefs, venting the unimaginable frustration of blatant failures weighed against the out-in-space hopes and expectations of Junior Nation.

A lot of the job may be whether Letarte can, well, not so much shout him down as talk him down.

"Steve's a talker, and you're not going to back him in a corner, I can tell you," McGrew said. "He's like a used car salesman."

Just kicking the tires, Earnhardt already has bought a lot.

"He does have a really cool attitude and personality," Earnhardt said. "Just during the tests when we've been around each other, it's been great to be in that environment.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Jason Smith/NASCAR/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. on new crew chief Steve Letarte: "He has good control of his team and a great plan of action, and he has all the details under control."

"He has good control of his team and a great plan of action, and he has all the details under control," Earnhardt continued.

Again, Earnhardt wouldn't compare directly. But you'll recall there were times when Earnhardt implied McGrew might not have all the details under control -- especially at the track, after the cars came off the hauler.

Now Letarte gets his turn at breaking the cycle Kyle Busch articulated so controversially when McGrew ascended the hot seat in May 2009.

"It's never Junior; it's always the crew chief," Busch said, fearing even then for McGrew's tenure. "If Junior doesn't run well, then he [McGrew] is going to be the 'problem' again."

It's been like that since the departure of Earnhardt's first and best crew chief, Tony Eury Sr. "Pops" ran the pits as a calm, no-nonsense uncle -- which he literally was to Junior.

Eury sent Junior to the first 15 of his 18 Cup wins, and to his best season (and last good one), 2004, when Earnhardt earned six wins, including the Daytona 500 and a berth in the inaugural Chase. After that year Pops was promoted out of the job.

No crew chief since has satisfied Junior Nation, or Junior himself, for that matter.

Second in command to Pops had been Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's first cousin. They'd been bickering since they were toddlers playing together, and never quite got over that. They would say any and everything to each other, and often wound up hurting each other's feelings, which complicated their communications.

For 2005, the cousins were separated by Dale Earnhardt Inc. officials, and that began the tailspin from which Junior has yet to recover, really.

Pete Rondeau didn't last long enough that year as Earnhardt's crew chief for anybody to get a clear read on his personality. He was relieved in May by the authoritative, analytical competition director at DEI, Steve Hmiel.

Hmiel could get Earnhardt to only one win. Then the Juniors were reunited for '06 and won one. They came as a package to Hendrick in '08, and won one.

By '09 the cousins' communications had grown so fretful again that Hendrick had experts monitor and study their radio traffic, trying to get them in sync for adjusting the car.

Then came McGrew … and now Letarte.

Gordon reckons the new pairing on the 88 team will go under a laser microscope right away.

"I don't think anybody would question that there's a tremendous amount of focus, a tremendous amount of expectations that are put on Junior, whatever team he's with," Gordon said. "So of course they're going to expect immediate success. I don't think it's fair to them."

Earnhardt doesn't mind.

"He has complete control over the quality control of the race cars," Earnhardt said, "and the preparation going to the racetrack."

And so, "I think he can have immediate impact," Earnhardt said.

The task is simple. Just please Junior, and Junior Nation.

Right away.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

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