Dale Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ready for new crew chief Greg Ives to take him to the next level

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It’s odd how sometimes the best person for a job is literally right in front of you – only you don’t realize it right away.

Such was the case with Greg Ives, who was right under Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s nose the whole time Junior sought a crew chief to replace Steve Letarte.

Ives, crew chief for Chase Elliott’s Xfinity championship last season for JR Motorsports, has an attention to detail that sets him apart from most other crew chiefs.

“You always want to improve a position with a stronger guy,” Earnhardt said during Thursday’s final day of the NASCAR media tour in Charlotte.

Earnhardt was faced with the predicament when Letarte announced prior to last season he would be leaving Hendrick Motorsports at the end of 2014 to become an analyst for NASCAR on NBC and NASCAR America.

Junior recalls the conversation as if it were yesterday:

“I looked him in the face and I told Steve before he left last year, I said, ‘You’re responsible for putting me in an even better situation than I am right now. I want to get better at this position you’re in. I don’t want a lateral move. I don’t want to drop down and wait for a guy to develop.’

“We didn’t even know Greg was an opportunity at that time. I told Steve to comb the sport to give me some names of some guys that can make me better. Greg’s name came up … and Steve said, ‘That’s the top guy. If he’s available, he’s at the top of the list.’”

While some critics might ask why Earnhardt didn’t pick a crew chief with significant Sprint Cup experience, Earnhardt is confident in Ives.

“I don’t think it’s a step back, I think it’s a step forward,” Earnhardt said. “This is a guy that engineered Jimmie (Johnson) to five championships, won the Nationwide Series championship last year, almost won it with Regan (Smith) the year before. Basically, in more than 50 percent of the years he’s been in the sport, he’s won a championship.”

But what makes Earnhardt feel Ives will be successful is how he goes about doing his job.

“One of the things I learned about him, which I already kind of knew, is that he’s a real detail kind of guy,” Earnhardt said. “I asked him about the Daytona car and he ran down this list of about 50 things, the most particular, peculiar, tiny things that he’s concerned with. When you ask him something, he’s going to give you the full rundown.

“He’s a details guy. You know that’s going to be a positive going into the relationship, that he’s that particular. You want a guy who’s a perfectionist, and yet there’s crew chiefs out there that don’t cover every single base.

“Regan was so impressed with him and said I was just going to love it, and I can see that already – and we haven’t even gotten to the racetrack yet. Once we get to the track and we’re at practice and going through that process, the reassurance I’m going to feel knowing he’s in control of everything is going to give me a lot of confidence.”

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Jeff Gordon’s legacy of success transcends generations

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Jeff Gordon’s announcement that 2015 will be his final full season of Sprint Cup competition is momentous for two particular members of the MotorSportsTalk family.

As Gordon ascended to and then reigned at the top of NASCAR, young Chris Estrada and Tony DiZinno watched it unfold almost every weekend in their living rooms as kids.

Here, the two share their thoughts on Gordon’s accomplishments and contributions.

Chris Estrada

If I can pinpoint the moment where I became a NASCAR follower, it would be when Dale Earnhardt Sr. won the 1998 Daytona 500.

And because I was now a 12-year-old Earnhardt fan, I naturally followed the lead of many others that pulled for the black No. 3 and built up a healthy dislike for one Jeff Gordon and that rainbow-colored No. 24.

As fans, we all want our guy or girl to win. But barring that, if Earnhardt at least beat Gordon on the track that Sunday, I could go to school the next day with at least a little spring in my step.

Sixteen years later, I look back on it all and I can’t help but laugh at my silliness. Don’t bother asking me for an exact reason why I didn’t like Gordon because through the sea of time, I can’t really fish one out and hand it to you.

Oh, I could give you some dumb line about how I thought he was a polished pretty boy that wasn’t as “tough” as Earnhardt and his contemporaries. But we all know that’s not true.

As we grow older, we all gain perspective. I now realize that the Earnhardt-Gordon rivalry – one that came to a heart-breaking end with Earnhardt’s death at the 2001 Daytona 500 – helped keep me riveted to NASCAR at an age where I could have easily gotten bored with it and decide to chase some other hot trend back then.

But NASCAR left me spellbound every weekend. And one of the main reasons for that was Gordon, my one-time object of animus that has become, in my opinion, one of NASCAR’s most important figures ever.

Earnhardt was the bridge between NASCAR’s two worlds – the Southern, blue-collar world where it began and the bigger, mainstream world it now occupies. But in the latter world, Gordon has helped ensure that NASCAR remains a success.

When Joe Schmoe on the street thinks of NASCAR, Jeff Gordon pops into his head – sometimes first, sometimes second behind Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., or Danica Patrick. Still, Gordon is there. His success on and off the track has ensured his presence.

With all of that said, I’m glad that we got one more reminder of how special he is behind the wheel of a race car in his renaissance season last year.

I only had relatively faint memories of Gordon’s glory run in the 1990s and early 2000s, so to see him constantly be a threat throughout the 2014 campaign was a revelation: “So this was what he was like.”

After closing the 2013 Chase strong, we knew 2014 could be a really good year for him – and boy, was it ever. Even with that whole Brad Keselowski thing at Texas.

But as 2014 progressed, I sometimes wondered just how much longer Gordon would be competing. The nagging back issues were one thing, but more important was that his legacy was secure and he would likely want to spend more time with the lovely family that he’s raised.

Surely – soon, I figured – he would look around, take all of those things into account, and say, ‘You know what? I’m good.’

That day has come. This morning, Gordon announced that the 2015 season will be the end of his full-time run in Sprint Cup.

His final lap has the potential to become the stuff of legend. Now a revered elder statesman in the garage and a massive fan favorite, Gordon will be the object of adulation at every stop on the Sprint Cup circuit.

But even more important, Gordon has reclaimed his competitive edge over the last couple of seasons. He, crew chief Alan Gustafson, and the 24 camp are a force to be reckoned with.

And after coming up just one point shy of the opportunity to compete for his fifth Cup title last year, Gordon will be more motivated than ever before to go out on top.

There’s no doubt that many within NASCAR Nation would see such an accomplishment as well-deserved.

Tony DiZinno

There’s something special about the first entity you truly recognize as a kid growing up.

And while yes, I was exposed to both NASCAR and open-wheel racing as in the 1990s, there were of course two standouts from the then-NASCAR Winston Cup Series: Dale Earnhardt in the black, No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet and Jeff Gordon, the “rainbow warrior” in the multicolored No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.

In my terms – and with only the Star Wars movies as a reference point – Gordon was the hero and Earnhardt the villain. Earnhardt’s car was black, after all.

That was the initial reference point for me.

And then, as I started following in the mid-1990s, that was also when the then-mustachioed wonder had evolved into Jeff Gordon, the man that was winning dozens of races left and right as the first truly young star NASCAR had seen in generations.

The 1997 Daytona 500 stands out, where Gordon led the famous Hendrick Motorsports 1-2-3 as the kickoff to his second championship. The single year of domination the following season in 1998 came next. Another Daytona 500 win, where Gordon smacked the roof of the car after winning in 1999, further added to the legend of the then-27-year-old.

After 2001, when he won the championship in a year when Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson made their debuts, it seemed as though Gordon’s “Drive for Five” was unstoppable.

But that season was of course, the biggest turning point in my formative NASCAR fandom.

Earnhardt died in the Daytona 500, in the single biggest racing tragedy since Ayrton Senna’s passing in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.

Gordon, still shy of 30 until later that year, was moving up the hierarchy in terms of his status in the NASCAR garage, even if he wasn’t the oldest driver on the grid compared to a Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett or Bill Elliott for instance.

He was the benchmark for all others to measure themselves against, and his first true rival was gone.

The torch began to pass that year. Harvick, of course, edged him in Atlanta in that famous finish. Tony Stewart became a regular winner. Kurt Busch was a full-time rookie.

Suddenly, Gordon had a new wave of talent to contend with – and though I never thought at the time he’d go 13 or 14 years without another title, that is what’s happened.

It’s not that he’s lost it. Gordon could have won at least two or three more titles in the interim. As he aged, and encountered younger teammates such as Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, he didn’t lose his drive – even if the elusive “drive for five” remained.

The 2004, 2007, 2009 and most recently 2014 seasons showcased the talent Gordon still has, as NASCAR has evolved through different car specs, marketing partners and series sponsors. And who could forget his being added as the 13th Chase driver, on Friday the 13th, in 2013?

Gordon has been the constant. Yet now, at the conclusion of the 2015 Sprint Cup season, that will end.

But unlike where Earnhardt’s end was abrupt and painful, Gordon will at least have the honor – and a worthy one a la Derek Jeter this past MLB season – of having a true final season tour throughout the 2015 campaign.

He may not have Richard Petty or Earnhardt’s number of titles, but he will get the proper, yearlong sendoff he deserves.

And he made the call on his own terms.

Former Dale Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Tony Eury Jr. joins new driver development group

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Full-service driver development programs are one of the growth industries in the racing community.

And that’s what one of the most respected companies in the chassis-building business is moving into.

LFR Chassis of Mooresville, N.C., announced Friday that it has formed a driver development program that features several big names in the racing world, including former Dale Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Tony Eury Jr.

Known as the LFR Driver Development Group, the firm will provide coaching and training in state-of-the-art race cars for primarily late-model and modified racing, according to a media release.

The four principles of LFR Driver Development have earned, according to the media release, more than 700 race wins and over three dozen series championships.

They are:

* Rob Fuller, owner of LFR Chassis, who has served as a driver, engineer, and pit crew member for teams including Penske Racing and Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

* Competition director Tony Eury Jr., former crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and who spent more than 20 years as a NASCAR crew chief, car chief and mechanic for teams such as Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports.

* Veteran driver, crew chief and car builder Jeff Fultz, who has won 10 championships and more than 250 race wins. He’s a three-time champion and all-time wins leader in the NASCAR All Pro Series.

* Veteran NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship-winning crew chief, driver and car chief Ryan Stone.

“With the experience level of our coaches and quality of equipment, we are taking a huge variable out of the developmental stages of a driver’s progression,” Fuller said. “We have all wished at some point of our career to have the best equipment and most knowledgeable crew so we can test our driving ability, and all that is under one roof.

“We have worked closely with the NASCAR community throughout our 20 plus year careers, and know what it takes to succeed in this ultra-competitive sport.”

Added Fultz, “What will be great about our program is that we will have entry level to pro level classes available. Some drivers might only drive a few races while others will continue through a few seasons. All this depends on the talent level shown throughout the year. We expect this to be a high-profile driver development program within the industry in a short amount of time.”

The group will also offer marketing, communications and public relations support, as well as social media, interview skills training, media coaching and sponsorship services led by veteran NASCAR public relations professional Nealie Stufflet.

“We created this group to help those looking for the right place to find a combination of unparalleled experience in NASCAR and top level equipment for drivers looking to take their careers to the next level,” said Fuller. “We have two drivers signed up as of today and will announce the full team when all seats are occupied.”

For more information, contact Fuller at Rob@LFRChassis.com.

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Though he fell short of championship goal, Steve Letarte still went out a winner — and on his own terms

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Even though his team failed to reach the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and even though he didn’t end his career as a NASCAR crew chief with a coveted first championship, Steve Letarte has no regrets.

Letarte served his final race as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief in Sunday’s season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

It was both a day Letarte had looked forward to because of new career challenges that lay ahead, but also was sad to see his nearly two-decade tenure with Hendrick Motorsports come to an end.

Letarte will join the NASCAR on NBC team as a race analyst for next season.

But he leaves Hendrick Motorsports with no regrets, knowing he, Earnhardt and the entire No. 88 team had given it their all, knowing that in pro sports, not everyone can win a championship in a given season.

“It was definitely a great year to end it (his crew chief career) on,” Letarte told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday morning. “A lot of people have asked that question, was it hard to step away with such success this year.

“I look at it the opposite way. I think it would have been very difficult to step away if we had an unsuccessful year. Mr. Hendrick (team owner Rick Hendrick) has been a mentor and leader to me and I feel I owe him a tremendous amount of thanks and gratitude for what he’s given me and my opportunities in racing.”

Letarte and Earnhardt wrapped up a four-year tenure together on Sunday. They took 142 regular season green flags together, earned five wins, 36 top-five and 74 top-10 finishes, along with four poles.

It was Letarte who led Earnhardt to his first win in nearly four seasons in June 2012. He also led Earnhardt to make the Chase in 2011 (finished seventh), 2012 (12th) and 2013 (fifth).

And then there was 2014. Letarte knew the No. 88 team would be strong, but he was pleasantly surprised at the tremendous final year he and Earnhardt had together, with four wins, 12 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes.

While the team ultimately finished eighth in the final standings, which some might consider a less than stellar year, it was completely the opposite in Letarte’s mind.

“To go out and not run like we should have would have been a big letdown,” Letarte said. “We’ve been taught at HMS (Hendrick Motorsports) for all these years to kind of run head-on towards the problem.

“If we didn’t have a good year, I feel (by going to NBC afterward) like I would just be running away from a team that wasn’t running well and that I didn’t do my part.

“Instead, it was the opposite, we had great success, we won some races, we had some ups and downs, that’s how NASCAR works. There can only be one champion at the end of the year, which means there’s a lot of disappointed teams.

“Now, I can kind of comfortably step away and prepare for my new role.”

Letarte will obviously miss the camaraderie with Earnhardt, Hendrick and everyone else at HMS, as well as fellow crew chiefs and competitors.

But at the same time, he’s not really going anywhere. He’ll still be going to races, he’ll still be a fixture in the Sprint Cup garage, will still talk and commiserate with drivers and crew chiefs.

It’ll all just be in a different role.

While Sunday was his last race with Earnhardt, they’ve formed a bond and friendship that will last a lifetime. Who knows, maybe Earnhardt may even give Letarte a few news scoops along the way.

But now that it’s all over, Letarte finally got the opportunity to reflect back not only on his career, but also the way the final race weekend of his Sprint Cup played out.

Sure, Letarte would have liked to have gone out either a champion, or even a race winner, but at the same time, he ultimately went out on his own terms.

“The whole weekend was fun, it was enjoyable,” Letarte said. “The toughest part was probably getting the race started. I had to give my last instructions to Dale, and that was a little tough.”

Hendrick then got on the team radio and unexpectedly gave Letarte an emotional sendoff, thanking him for all of his years of dedicated service and contributions to the team and organization.

“And then the boss said his piece on the radio, which I really appreciated,” Letarte said. “That made it tough because he’s somebody I really look up to, something I wasn’t really expecting.

“The rest of the weekend, you could kind of mentally kind of compartmentalize, understand it’s coming, get prepared for it. But when someone like the boss gives you that sort of pat on the back, that’s hard to take in an emotional last weekend.”

Then came the race and it was business as usual for one last time.

“After all of that, we got to about Lap 5 of the race, it felt great,” Letarte said. “It felt great to get in a rhythm and start racing. And then when the race ended, in my mind I thought it was going to be an emotional time, and it really wasn’t.

“It was an enjoyable time, I got to shake all the crew member’s hands, told them I how much appreciated all their hard work, told Dale I’d see him later this week or next week. I had my family with me, we headed off to the airport and flew home, got home and it felt kind of like a normal Sunday night.”

While Letarte had a successful career as a crew chief, there’s one thing he definitely won’t miss: the early wake-up calls.

“I think it won’t be until this week, when the alarm doesn’t continue to go off at 6 a.m. or 5:30 to go to the shop, that’s when it will probably set in,” Letarte said. “When the emails go from the mid-hundreds to single digits with questions, I think that’s when it’ll sink in that we’re not preparing for the 2015 Daytona 500.”

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One last ride together Sunday at Homestead: Steve Letarte and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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The day that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had dreaded is here:

Steve Letarte’s final race as Junior’s crew chief.

When the checkered flag falls on Sunday’s season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the Earnhardt-Letarte partnership will end.

While Earnhardt will continue racing in the Sprint Cup Series, Letarte will be moving on to a new role as an analyst on NASCAR on NBC telecasts.

Letarte will be ending a nearly two-decade run with Hendrick Motorsports, which began while he was still a teenager. Now 35, the Cornish, Maine native will go from atop the pit box to in front of the bright lights and camera.

While excited about his future, Letarte has a lot of priceless memories, including his relationship with Earnhardt and before that with Jeff Gordon.

“There’s a lot going through my mind,” Letarte said earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I don’t think I can hardly believe it yet. It’s unique.”

According to MRN.com, Letarte already cleaned out most of his office back at the Hendrick Motorsports compound in Concord, North Carolina.

“I think it’s the only fair thing to do so when the season’s over it’s not personal, it’s business,” Letarte said. “Greg Ives (Earnhardt’s new crew chief) needs to get into that office and get going, and he’s excited to do that so I’m sure it’s going to be an emotional week, to say the least.”

Although Earnhardt was eliminated from championship contention prior to the Eliminator Round, Letarte still wants to have one more go to finish the season – and his career as a crew chief – with a final win Sunday.

“We’re going to try, and I don’t know how successful we’re going to be at this, to make it business as usual,” Letarte said. “It’s a track that Dale runs well at and we run well at, especially at the top, so we’re going down there and try to make the last race together a win. That’s our goal.”

If it wasn’t for Letarte joining forces with him in 2011, it’s likely Earnhardt wouldn’t have had the resurgence that he has had the last few seasons, particularly 2014, with four wins, including Junior’s second career triumph in the Daytona 500.

With one last chance for both him and Earnhardt, allowing Letarte to go out a winner, that’s the main focus Sunday – although there’ll be a lot of memories that will likely come flooding back once the checkered flag drops.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Letarte said of his last race. “I’m torn, right now. It’s my final race as a crew chief and that’s emotional, it’s disappointing.

“At the same time, the buzz about starting to get creative for next year, we’re starting to get to that point, of what’s next.”

Now that the day he’s waited for nearly a year (he announced back in January that he was leaving at the end of this season), is Letarte having any second thoughts?

“I’m ready, I’m not disappointed in my decision,” he said. “It just becomes a little harder when it comes to the finish and that’s what this weekend’s gonna be.”

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