In 2011, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a new crew chief in Steve Letarte, who says their first meeting was a bit of an education.
Letarte visited Earnhardt in his Mooresville, N.C., home and as soon as he stepped inside, he saw racing trophies in the hall. He saw racing trophies in the living room. He saw a Daytona 500 championship trophy on the mantle.
While many athletes might have a trophy room, Earnhardt had racing stuff sprinkled throughout the house. That told Letarte something about his new driver.
“Racing is who he is. He’s a racecar driver,” Letarte said by telephone this week.
Now a NASCAR television analyst for NBC, Letarte is spending plenty of time talking about Earnhardt these days. Earnhardt, 43, has announced he is leaving the driver’s seat at the end of the season. As long as those retirement plans hold up, Sunday will mark his final race at Talladega, where he has recorded six of his 26 Cup circuit victories.
Letarte spent four years as Earnhardt’s crew chief before Letarte moved into television. In their final year together, they added another Daytona 500 trophy to that first one on the mantle.
In that time, Letarte learned that he hit the bulls-eye with his first impression. Earnhardt wasn’t riding his legacy as the son of NASCAR royalty, Dale Earnhardt Sr. — he loved the sport, too.
If they disagreed, Letarte never thought it was anything other than Earnhardt showing his passion for racing.
“He isn’t just a celebrity. He enjoys what he does. It seems simple, but that’s who he is,” said Letarte, who was Jeff Gordon’s crew chief from 2005-10.
Letarte said he believes fans see that Earnhardt is genuine, which is part of why he’s been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver every year since 2003.
“He has zero filter,” Letarte said, chuckling. “In this age where people are polished and pay attention to the public perception of them, Dale doesn’t. What you get is his opinion, and he’ll be great on TV when he’s finished racing.
“The fans love him because of the way he is, but the sponsors and the partners love him, too.”
Letarte compared Junior’s “no-filter” approach to former racers A.J. Foyt and Tony Stewart.
“He’s going to give you a chin-high fastball,” Letarte said.
Letarte said Earnhardt fits into Talladega particularly well, which helps explains his success at the track.
“It’s one of those places that hasn’t changed much,” Letarte said. “The die-hard NASCAR fan appreciates it. There’s something in the secret sauce there, and (Earnhardt) knows how to do it there.”