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Harris: Letarte Ignores Criticism, Presses On

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 4 2010

Jeff Gordon and Steve Letarte will work toward future championships together. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

The end-of-season rehash and planning session last fall between crew chief Steve Letarte and his driver, Jeff Gordon, was no bed of roses.

The two had a few things to work out after a one-win, third-place season, and it wasn’t just the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who was doing the talking.

“The only fight I had was at the end of last year when I sat down with Jeff to make sure we were on the same page with where this team needed to go,’’ Letarte said last weekend after signing a three-year contract extension that keeps him with the Hendrick Motorsports team through 2014.  ”Once we got that out of the way, the rest of it has really been kind of natural.”

Some people may be surprised to see the Letarte-Gordon tandem staying together. Gordon, who hasn’t won a title since 2001, has earned only 10 of his 82 wins since Letarte took over as his crew chief in the fall of 2005.

And the crew chief, at 31 one of the youngest in the Cup garage, has dealt with plenty of criticism and conjecture about his future.

Heading to Watkins Glen for this Sunday’s road race, Gordon has gone 50 races – since the spring race at Texas in 2009 – without a victory.

But, on the plus side, the driver has racked up points finishes of second (2007) and third (2009) during Letarte’s tenure. And, despite no wins in 2010, he is second in the current standings.

“Steve brings solid leadership to this team,’’ Gordon said after the contract extension was announced. “The chemistry is very good and the wins are going to come. I really believe we can win championships together.’’

Letarte said he owes team boss Rick Hendrick plenty for keeping his faith in the young crew chief.

“I’m extremely excited,’’ he said. “Hendrick Motorsports is the only company that I’ve ever received a paycheck from. I’ve worked here since I was a teenager and they’ve provided wonderful opportunities for me. I owe a lot to them and I’m really excited to be extended here so we can do it for a few more years.”

Right now, though, it’s that first win of the season that Letarte is aiming at.

Thanks to NASCAR’s seeding rules for the Chase for the championship, each of the 12 drivers who makes the 10-race postseason begins with a 10-point bonus for each victory during the 26-race regular season.

If the Chase were to start this week, despite being second in the points, Gordon would be in seventh, 50 points behind both teammate Jimmie Johnson, the four-time reigning champion, and Denny Hamlin, who lead the series with five wins apiece.

Others currently in the top 12 who have won this season are series leader Kevin Harvick (2 wins), Kyle Busch (2), Kurt Busch (2) and Greg Biffle, who won last Sunday at Pocono.

“I’d hate to be down 50 points to those guys starting the Chase,’’ Gordon said. “It’s important for us to get some wins.’’

Letarte noted, “We’ve been trying to win races since February and I don’t think we can do anything different to try to win races, but that is definitely our number one priority.”

Gordon agreed.

“We all know we’re capable of winning races,’’ he said. “There are probably a couple we should have won this year. But it just seems something happens to keep us from getting there. We’ve got to change that.’’

The latest “thing’’ came at Pocono, where Gordon was dominant at times and was leading late in the race. But, with the possibility of rain cutting the race short and the laps winding down, Letarte put four tires on the 24 on the final pit stop.

Most of the other contenders took two tires and Gordon wound up restarting 13th. He managed to work his way back to a sixth-place finish, but it was another frustrating result.

“Anytime you don’t win you get frustrated,’’ Letarte said. “Every team in the garage wants to win races, so I think we’re as frustrated as the other ones that aren’t winning races. I don’t think it’s affecting our performance.”

In an effort to try to get to Victory Lane sooner than later, Letarte made a key change before the Pocono race, hiring Jeff Dickerson, who recently left Joe Gibbs Racing, as Gordon’s spotter.

“I’m excited to have Jeff on the roof,’’ Letarte said. “I think he brings a unique style. I’ve known Jeff for a long time. I’ve always heard him in my left ear for a lot of races; him and the (No.) 18  have run really strong at some of the speedways.

“I think the change will hopefully help us toward the end of some of the race – some of the double-file restarts get pretty wild. I think his style might maybe suit the races better.”

Those double-file restarts have been a bane to Gordon, who has led late in several races this season only to fade after being beaten on a late restart.

The 24 team needs to turn some of those around soon if Gordon is to have any real chance of winning another championship. But Letarte says the commitment is there.

“I think we put in that commitment to make this a championship team a long time ago,’’ he said. “It’s never really been in question of Rick’s commitment to this team, or to any of these teams.

“The spotter decision is something that I’ve been working on, not anybody in the front office – that’s more my decision. The contract is more of a formality than anything. I’ve never really questioned where I was going to work. Jeff and I have those conversations over the winter to make sure that we’re both on the same page, and the rest of it is just a part of the sport.”

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 4 2010
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