Credit where it's due for Letarte
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The radio analyst talked glowingly earlier this week about Jeff Gordon's return to the top of the Sprint Cup standings. He praised the No. 24 team for overcoming a blown tire late in Sunday's race at Las Vegas for a top-10 finish.
Then he noted the four-time champion took the points lead "despite" crew chief Steve Letarte sitting atop his pit box.
That's like saying LeBron James recently scored 55 points despite coach Mike Brown yelling from the sideline.
Somebody call a foul.
It's time to lay off Letarte, a lightning rod for criticism during Gordon's winless 2008. He did nothing different last season from what he did in 2007, when Gordon had the numbers to beat everybody on the planet except one -- Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
He's doing little different now, with the exception of some offseason restructuring and reorganizing. He should be getting kudos for a job well done. Gordon himself said the team is far ahead of where it was last year and gave Letarte much of the credit.
People should listen.
"I'm so proud of Steve Letarte," Gordon said after finishing second at California two weeks ago. "He got beat up so bad by a lot of people. It's tough being the crew chief of that DuPont Chevrolet. There's a lot of pressure and expectations."
Letarte would know. He's worked in the 24 garage since 1995, when he began sweeping floors. He's seen the best of times: championships in 1995, '97, '98 and 2001. He's seen the worst of times: 2005, when Gordon failed to make the Chase and finished outside the top 10 for the first time in 12 seasons.
He's been with Gordon for all but two of his 81 victories.
He understands how great the driver is, and that when the driver doesn't win, people are going to look for a scapegoat. He understands the crew chief is the most likely scapegoat, whether it's deserved or not.
Just ask Tony Eury Jr., crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"It's no different than in football or other sports," Letarte said. "Very rarely do you hear the quarterback blamed. It's always the head coach."
Letarte has managed to keep the proper perspective through the good and bad times. He hasn't needed a "milk and cookies" speech from owner Rick Hendrick such as the one Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had in 2005, a talk many credit with sparking them to three straight titles.
There has been no defining moment for this turnaround, although Letarte did appreciate the vote of confidence Gordon and Hendrick gave late last season.
"He's the same guy who led the points by 300 [in 2007] and got him to finish second in the Chase," Hendrick said at the time. "He didn't go brain-dead this year."
That meant more to Letarte than any speech. It motivated him -- if it were possible to be motivated more than he was -- to turn things around and get Gordon back into Victory Lane.
Topping the standings is a step in the right direction.
"They said I was the crew chief and I did a good job in '07 and they believed in me," Letarte said. "That's all I needed. I knew it before that day, but it was nice to [hear]. They were given a free escape route by the media, and they wouldn't take it."
Hendrick said there never was a thought of making a change.
"We are all disappointed with last year, there's no question about that," he said. "But Jeff and Steve have a great relationship. They've been around each other for a long time. They communicate extremely well, and Jeff's confidence in him has never changed."
Gordon still hasn't won a points race since Charlotte in 2007, a string of 43 in a row, but he won one of the 150-mile qualifiers at Daytona and has been in position to win each of the first three races.
Letarte believes the wins will come again soon. Maybe they'll start this weekend at Atlanta, where Gordon made his first Cup start in 1992 amid little fanfare and with few expectations.
But Letarte isn't interested in victories to hear people say he's fixed a problem.
"I want to win races because the owner deserves to win races, the driver deserves to win races and this race team deserves to win races," he said.
Letarte deserves some credit as well. Gordon didn't get comfortable in the new car without help.
"When we left [the final race at] Homestead, Stevie had a laundry list of ideas to go over, just little tweaks and things to help us improve," Hendrick said. "He made those adjustments, and I think we're seeing a different 24 team. That swagger is back. They're all committed. Jeff has really stepped up. He's probably more focused than I've ever seen him."
Gordon had a lot of things go wrong last season beyond Letarte's control, and the first three races of 2008 were a microcosm of what was ahead. He finished 39th at Daytona with an engine failure and 35th at Las Vegas after a horrific crash to enter Atlanta 23rd in points.
When we left Homestead, Stevie had a laundry list of ideas to go over, just little tweaks and things to help us improve. He made those adjustments, and I think we're seeing a different 24 team." -- Team owner Rick Hendrick
That the team rallied to make the Chase and finish seventh in points despite six DNFs would have had most in the garage celebrating. That's how high the standards of the 24 are.
That's why there is more pressure on Letarte than on most crew chiefs.
"You know it's not easy having that outside pressure," Johnson. "But those two both have always believed in one another and knew that they just needed to work through their cars and sort out what Jeff needed.
"From being an insider, I'm happy to see them getting the results and running like they are because they've been working very hard to be in this position and have dealt with some outside pressure."
That likely won't stop rumblings if Gordon has one or two bad races. Letarte has heard them all before, from Ray Evernham being brought back to recapture the magic he and Gordon had in winning the first three titles to another young crew chief being shifted into his position.
"I don't really listen, to be honest," Letarte said. "It's easier not to listen if you have an owner that supports you, a driver that supports you sponsors, teammates and employees that support you."
Evernham and Robbie Loomis, who helped Gordon to his fourth title in 2001, have been a big part of Letarte's support group. He calls them both at least once as week, not to talk about racing but to talk about life.
"When the rest of the world was giving up on me, [Ray] was one that would stand behind me and tell me just to believe in myself," Letarte said. "He told me I got to this point leaning on good people, not to get far away from that."
Letarte hasn't. When 2008 ended he recalled a comment made by Loomis the day after Gordon failed to make the '05 Chase.
"The sun came up," said Letarte, who a few days later would be promoted to replace Loomis, who was leaving for then-Petty Enterprises. "We kind of laughed about it. It wasn't that [the Chase] wasn't the most important thing in our lives that Saturday night.
"It was because that Sunday morning when the sun came up we still had our health. We still had our family and everything that should be most important in life. As long as you have that and your integrity you live to fight another day."
This fight is long from over. Letarte isn't any more excited about being atop the standings now than he was being six points behind Mark Martin in 2007 after consecutive second-place finishes at California and Las Vegas.
"It's Week 3," he said. "I don't look at the points. I only look at cars and speed. I'm way more proud of leading laps in every race, having a car that deserved to lead laps in every race, just seeing the energy back in my guys.
"When you assemble a crew to win races and you assemble a crew to win championships and you're not even close, then there is nothing more disheartening than to see the look in those guys' faces."
Pat Tryson -- the crew chief for 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch -- understands. He's gone through similar ups and downs the past few years, although he's never had to endure the criticisms at the level Letarte did.
"It's not a lot of fun," Tryson said. "When things are good, it makes it much sweeter."
Things are starting to sweeten for the 24 team. Gordon has led 95 laps, which puts him on pace to lead more than 1,000 after leading only 447 last season. He was within a few car lengths of victory at California and potentially had the car to beat at Las Vegas before a tire blew entering pit road.
Again, Letarte deserves some of the credit.
"I love that he never gives up," Hendrick said. "Never quits. He's always working hard and looking for that extra something to make the team better. He knows our organization inside and out -- where to go, who to lean on -- and everyone respects him.
"And I know if Steve couldn't do the job and be successful, he would be the first to say so. That's the kind of guy you want."
Strong words. Perhaps they will stop the criticism.
"I don't know about that," Letarte said with a laugh. "We'll see."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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