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Letarte thrives under pressure as crew chief for Earnhardt

Staff Report • Aug 22, 2013 at 10:09 PM

BRISTOL — Steve Letarte can relate to the classic David Bowie and Queen collaboration, “Under Pressure.”As the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the former crew chief for Jeff Gordon, the 34-year-old North Carolina resident knows all about working under the microscope.As those two very high-profile racers get ready to compete in this Saturday’s IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, fans constantly want to know how they compare.“They’re alike because they’re both fierce competitors and great race car drivers,” Letarte said. “They have a tremendous amount of ability and a lot of those trends you see with any athlete who competes at this level.“Their styles are quite a bit different. It’s interesting finding success in the sport with how much different their styles are. It’s been an adjustment, but it’s an enjoyable adjustment. Dale and I are friends, and we’ve had some succcess although we want to have more for sure.” It has taken a while longer to find success with Earnhardt than it did with Gordon with whom Letarte won in just their sixth race together.However, one has to consider Letarte’s long history with Gordon.He started out at Hendrick Motorsports sweeping floors as a 16-year-old, and less than two years later was promoted to a tire specialist for Gordon’s No. 24 team. It was basically an all-star crew with Ray Evernham atop the pit box and Chad Knaus overseeing the chassis work.The team dominated the spring race at Bristol with Gordon winning four straight Food City 500’s from 1995-98.“There was a time, Bristol, Darlington, some of those places, we won a lot of races at,” Letarte said. “It seemed like the day race at Bristol, we had a tremendous amount of success.”This weekend, Letarte hopes to have similar success with Earnhardt, the 2004 August night race winner. But, there is also the prospect of battling for the series championship.Coming into Bristol, Earnhardt ranks seventh in the points. However, finishes of 30th and 36th in his last two races have him just 20 points ahead of Kasey Kahne who is 11th in the point standings. Only the top 10 drivers automatically qualify for NASCAR’s 10-race “Chase for the Championship” playoffs. The other two spots are based on race wins.“We think we have a shot at the championship, but we have to make the Chase first,” Letarte said. “We don’t want to count our chickens before they’re hatched. We were in good shape before Watkins Glen and Michigan, but we’re close to 11th now. We know it’s a battle to get in. We have to earn our spot in the Chase, but if we do that, I think we can contend with any team out there.”For Letarte, it’s more than racing for points.While a strong points finish is always desirable, Letarte believes it’s more important to win races like they did last season at Michigan. “Winning is what racing is built upon,” he said. “When you start racing, you don’t points-race on Saturday night. You go out and race for trophies. NASCAR is no different. Our goal is always to race for trophies. I think we’ve actually been more competitive than last year when we got our win. We just need to figure out what we lack where we can break through and add some to the trophy case before the end of the season.”