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Dale Earnhardt Jr’s crew chief Steve Letarte set to step away

LOUDON, N.H. — He still has miles to go before he can think about taking a final victory lap. And make no mistake, Steve Letarte fully intends on being at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship finale and being a factor as crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., in his swan song season atop the pit box of Earnhardt’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Next season, the amiable Letarte will retire to the TV booth as an analyst for NBC Sports, which will join forces with Fox Sports as NASCAR’s broadcast partners.

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Before he does, however, the 35-year-old native of Portland, Maine, will return to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301. The visit to the 1.058-mile oval will have special meaning since it is where Letarte launched his career as a crew chief in 2005, wrenching on Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet after previously working on it as a tire specialist, mechanic and car chief.

Six weeks after his debut, Letarte and Gordon earned the first of 10 victories together.

“This has always been a great place,’’ Letarte said of NHMS, which he visited in June for a test session. “I can remember coming back when they first reconfigured it and I was coming up here as a little kid when I lived here with my parents. It’s just a great race track and a great part of the country.

“It’s a track I’ve yet to be able to win as a crew chief, but [I] have been a part of some great winning teams up here, but never as a crew chief, so it would be a fun one to win, for sure.’’

After a six-year stint with Gordon ended after a winless 2010 season, Letarte was paired with Earnhardt following a Hendrick in-house shakeup that saw crew chief Alan Gustafson paired with Gordon, Letarte supplant Lance McGrew as Earnhardt’s crew chief, and McGrew team with Mark Martin in the No. 5.

‘I’m a huge fan of the sport and I love covering the sport.’

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Their first three seasons together produced only one victory. But Letarte and Earnhardt launched into their last go-round in impressive fashion when they won the season-opening Daytona 500.

As momentous as the victory was for Earnhardt, who won it for the second time in his career, it was as special for Letarte.

“Yeah, it was really a cool thing to win the Daytona 500 with Steve, because he had never won one,’’ Earnhardt said. “I couldn’t ask for the season to start any better, considering it was his last year.’’

Letarte made sure to establish trust as the foundation of their relationship.

“I think we really had an agreement that we were going to do this together and make it work,’’ said Earnhardt, who had a reputation of being a difficult driver to work with. He even ran roughshod over his own cousin, Tony Eury Jr., who once worked as his crew chief.

Although Earnhardt tried hard to make it work with McGrew, their partnership went nowhere in 59 winless races. It produced just four top fives and 10 top 10s, leading to Earnhardt’s pairing with Letarte in 2011.

“We both kind of needed each other because he was coming off some pretty frustrating seasons with Jeff and both of them kind of needed a new start,’’ Earnhardt said. “So me and Steve maybe deserved each other. So I knew when we got together that maybe it was my last straw, because he had been through so much and I had been through so much and I needed to get something going — and fast.

“So it couldn’t have been a better and more enjoyable few years than the last few years I’ve had with Steve.’’

So how had Letarte impacted him as a driver?

“I trust him a whole lot,’’ Earnhardt said. “I believe in what he does, believe in every move he makes and he makes me feel comfortable behind the wheel. I don’t question the cars, I don’t question the preparation, I don’t question our initiative and our motivation and determination.

“I never felt more confident and being able to depend on my team like I have with this group. It’s been an amazing experience and he’s a big part of that.’’

That trust factor was tested early on when they went to Daytona in 2011 and, Letarte recalled, “we crashed everything we had,’’ he said.

“Then we went to Phoenix and qualified poorly, ran average and then we went to Vegas and just improved from Friday to Saturday and Saturday to Sunday,’’ Letarte said. “I think just the fact that things didn’t go great for us at the start but everybody was still behind us 100 percent — I was behind him and he was behind me — I think that helps.

“It’s easy to win races, as odd as that sounds, but it’s way harder to lose them. There’s no such thing as a .500 record in racing. It takes a different approach and I think we have taken that together the last few years and it’s been easy.’’

That feeling was reinforced when Earnhardt won at Pocono last month, marking his third victory with Letarte.

But Letarte said the sudden success of his final season as Earnhardt’s crew chief did not give him reason to reassess his decision to depart the sport. It was, in fact, validated at Kansas in May.

“Well, ever since I made the decision, I knew that Sundays were going to be difficult,’’ Letarte said. “I love my job and I love what I do, then the Saturday of Kansas, it was my little girl’s first communion and I missed that.

“So when you start to miss events like that, you remind yourself why you made that decision. Yeah, there’s going to be four hours on Sunday that’s going to be pretty hard to replace — if it can be replaced, at all — but there will be more days the rest of the week that I’ll get to spend time with my family and that’ll be nice.’’

In the end, his quality of life and ability to spend more time with his family were the reasons that led to his decision to become a broadcaster.

“Yeah, absolutely,’’ Letarte said. “It was never a question of whether I didn’t want to do what I’m doing. I love my job, but there is not a lot of part-time crew chief jobs out there. To do my job as it needs to be done for the guys who deserve it and put the hours in, they need someone in my position to be committed and work seven days a week.

“I’ve done it now for 20 years and I’ve worked on the [Hendrick Motorsports] team for 20 years and love my job, but it was time for a change.’’

When NBC came calling, Letarte seized the opportunity.

“I’m a huge fan of the sport and I love covering the sport,’’ said Letarte. “I’m a talkative guy and I relate well to people so I enjoy that part of it.

“So when it became an opportunity, I never dreamt it would be at 35 years old. In my mind, I thought it would be 55, but NBC has really made a huge commitment to the sport over the next 10 years and it gave me a lot of confidence that it was time to go.’’

But that in no way suggests that Letarte has hit cruise control. After all, he has many more miles to run and knows that he cannot let up now, not with Earnhardt in prime position to contend for a championship, which would be the first for both.

“He’s not taking it easy and getting off the gas any because it’s his last season,’’ said Earnhardt. “It’s really a bit of a motivation for the team and I think it says a lot about his character. I know he wants to end his season with no regrets, just like we do every season.

“But he’s crew-chiefing the car for what he believes is his last year and he doesn’t want to leave anything on the table, that’s for sure.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.
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