CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It took Steve Letarte 51 races to return Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Victory Lane, where the duo celebrated at Michigan in 2012 a turning point in their pairing.
Letarte, a career Hendrick Motorsports employee, had been tasked with rebuilding the confidence in NASCAR's most popular driver and teaching him how to win again. The confidence part wasn't difficult — it took discipline, raised expectations and a schedule Earnhardt was expected to follow.
The winning? Well, it didn't come as often as driver and crew chief would like.
Earnhardt didn't win again in 2012 or all of 2013. His next victory didn't come to this year, the season-opening Daytona 500. But, he added a second win last Sunday at Pocono, and now heads his weekend back to Michigan International Speedway, site of his first victory with Letarte two years ago, in the midst of his first multi-win season in a decade.
The irony is that the success is finally coming as he and Letarte are set to split.
Letarte announced in January this year would be his last with Hendrick Motorsports and as Earnhardt's crew chief. He's moving into an analyst role with NBC and will be in the television booth when the network takes over a portion of the NASCAR schedule next year.
Letarte, despite the success he's finally achieving with Earnhardt, is at peace with the decision.
"You guys only get to see the great stuff, which is a win at Daytona and a win (at Pocono)," he said. "But Saturday of Kansas, my little girl had her first communion and I was in Kansas. When moments like that happen it reaffirms why I made my decision."
Letarte was 15 when he became a part-time employee with Hendrick Motorsports in 1995. In the 20 seasons since, he progressed through the organization and became one of the team's veteran crew chiefs. He also got married and had two children, but the demands of his job prevented him from being the husband and father he wanted to be.
"This is my life, this is how I was raised, but I chose ... to have a family, and when I made that decision, that was not a casual decision, that was a decision for forever," he said. "As much as I love my job, they have to come first."
Earnhardt understands that Letarte must move on for his own personal reasons, and he's genuinely happy for his crew chief — "he's going to be able to spend a ton of time with his kids, play as much golf as he wants to play. He's getting a steal compared to what he's doing right now."
But he didn't feel that way last November when Letarte told him after the season finale that he was leaving the team at the end of 2014.
"I broke down," Earnhardt admitted. "It was the hardest thing to have to hear, but at the same time, I thought, 'Well, we've got one year together, and as much fun as we have and as good a friends as we are, I feel lucky to have one more year.'"
So their goal is to put together the strongest season possible, to win races and make a run at the Sprint Cup title.
"It would be very disappointing and sad if this was his last year and we struggled," Earnhardt said. "But we've won two races, and I won my first Pocono race, he won his first Daytona 500. It seems a bit storybook, and we're having a real thrill."
NO TIME TO PARTY: Ed Carpenter got very little time to celebrate following his IndyCar Series victory at Texas last Saturday night. The owner/driver returned to Indianapolis early Sunday morning, and was back to work a day later.
Carpenter and his Ed Carpenter Racing crew were on the road first thing Monday, headed to Iowa Speedway for the first of three test sessions in nine days. The team was also scheduled to test at Milwaukee and Pocono.
"I guess there is no rest for us right now," said Carpenter, who led 90 laps at Texas in grabbing his first win of the season. "We need to use this break to get ready for the next oval races. It's tough on the whole team after more than a month of work. But that is why we love to go racing."
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