As Steve LeTarte entered his last season as the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. before moving to the NBC Broadcast booth next year, there was one race that he wanted to add to his resume before it was done – the Daytona 500. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag on Sunday night ahead of the field, the crew chief got to savor the moment.
“It’s Daytona,” LeTarte commented. “It’s a place I’ve been coming my whole life, 20 years in the sport. I remember before that coming with my dad, watching him run around here. It’s like when we sat in the drivers meeting today, when they announced the guys that were in the Hall of Fame, all the great drivers there, they don’t say how many times they won Martinsville, Bristol, Charlotte. This is the five-time Sprint Cup Champion, and a three-time Daytona 500 champion.
“Any race they decide when you win it, you’re the champion of the event, not the winner of the event, it kind of sets it apart. That’s really what this is all about, is to come down here.”
LeTarte added that well he is excited to have won the race, he had a bit of sadness going into this race knowing that it’d be his last race as a crew chief.
“I think I’m going to have a lot of those moments this year. I’ve done this since I was a 16-year-old kid,” he commented. “I don’t know anything else. The joke with my team when you go anywhere, if you want to know where to eat, I’ve grown up at all these tracks. Everyone has a bucket list, and you don’t work in racing without having the Daytona 500 on your bucket list.
“It seems a little bit surreal or awkward, but it appears that a career-defining moment came in my last chance at it. Like I said earlier, it’s one of the those things that they might say I won X amount of races as a crew chief, but Daytona 500 champion will always be set out of that list. This one was special. I’m going to enjoy this one, for sure.”
Now this year with the new Chase format, Earnhardt has virtually already locked himself into the Chase and says that this is just the start of what is to come for him and LeTarte. Earnhardt compared it to when he used to go go-karting.
“You know, when you’re a kid, especially when you’re growing up around racing, me and all my buddies would go to pay to ride the go-kart ride, whatever racetrack we were at. Every racetrack, Talladega, every place would have them. We’d get a hundred bucks from daddy and go ride the go-karts till the wheels fell off, till we ran out of money,” he said. “On that last ride, you let it all hang out. You didn’t care if you got kicked off. If you didn’t get kicked off, something was wrong, on the last ride. This is Steve’s last ride. He’s going to let the rough side drag all year. He’s got a little racing left in him, I think he’s going to try to get it all out. That’s good for me. I’m fortunate to be on the ride with him.”
Steve LeTarte said with the win and virtually being locked in the Chase, they’ve opened the risk versus reward window tremendously.
“There’s a line there. It’s hard to explain. It’s like a return on investment. There’s a number there that everybody knows how many positions you’re willing to give up versus how much of a chance you have to win,” Letarte commented. “Now it’s easy to say you can run 20th and go for a win, where if you’re racing for the points, you can’t afford to give up 20 points.
“When they come out with this points system, we talked about it a lot, especially at Media Day. I don’t think it changes much before you win. I don’t think anybody can take any bigger chances we already take to try to win. I think once you have won one, it gives you an opportunity to really take borderline ridiculous chances. It really does. If there is a slim chance, that’s really all the chance you need.”