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.”
No laps have been turned in the NTT IndyCar Series this season, yet rookie Oliver Askew incessantly is analyzing fresh lap data with his Arrow McLaren SP team.
For the past two weeks, Askew has turned hundreds of laps in iRacing at Watkins Glen International and Barber Motorsports Park, and his support team meticulously has scoured the data in real time.
Race engineer Blair Perschbacher, assistant engineer Mike Reggio and strategist Billy Vincent are connected via all the software and timing systems that are on Askew’s real-world No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet. After every run, numbers instantly are crunched, and Askew debriefs with his crew on improving the handling of his car in search of every fraction of a second as he would in real life.
Last Saturday, Askew started and finished fifth at Watkins Glen International, where he practiced with the advisement of his team for more than 15 hours in the SimMetric Driver Performance Labs simulator. Despite a relative sim racing newbie, Askew, 23, finished only two spots behind Will Power, who has more than 1,500 starts and 150 victories on iRacing road courses.
“We’re taking this very seriously,” he said. “You can tell by the results at Watkins Glen. You know which drivers have built their sims properly. How much they’ve been practicing. Those are the guys who finish up front.
“I’m still trying to represent everyone. It’s cool we have the same paint scheme. We’re just trying to represent Arrow and our partners the best as possible. We know they’re all watching, and it seems the viewership is going up.”
The Jupiter, Florida, native has found an edge through his friendship with SimMetric Driver Performance Labs, which is based in nearby West Palm Beach, Florida. Askew and SimMetric CEO Greg De Giorgis met last year through mutual friends. Last year, Askew had done a few simulator sessions before winning the 2019 Indy Lights championship (and graduating to the ride with Arrow McLaren SP).
With an official simulator partnership in the Road to Indy program, SimMetric’s CXC Motion Pro II simulator travels in a trailer to racing events around the country, providing drivers with extra preparation time for the real world.
The full-motion simulator includes a motion system developed by drivers and engineers, hyrdaulic brakes and force-feedback steering system. Though at the high end for simulators available to the general public, it retails for much less than the seven-figure simulators used by auto manufacturers with race programs.
“While time in a driving simulator will never fully replace real seat time, sim seat time can go a very long way in supplementing the seat time a driver gets,” De Giorgis told NBCSports.com in an email. “With three added benefits you don’t get in the real car: Significantly lower cost per hour, no risk of bodily harm or damage to the car, and of course, no limitations on time.”
There are some limitations for how much Askew can practice, though. A schedule was set up last week so the team, Askew and De Giorgis (who helps run the simulator and maintain communications with the team) could work together while also maintaining self-isolation with their families.
The trailer with the simulator is parked indoors at the Riviera Beach, Florida, shop of Extreme Velocity Motorsports, which also has an unofficial affiliation with SimMetric.
“We’re practicing social distancing and making sure the trailer and everything is clean,” Askew said. “We’re taking that very seriously. It’s still a job for me, so I need to get what I can out of it.”
He’s gotten a lot from it despite a lack of experience. The team can compare simulation data from iRacing to real-world historical data from past races and test sessions.
Reggio handles fuel data, and Simpson monitors strategy and timing. While setups are fixed for the iRacing IndyCar Challenge, Perschbacher is able to work with brake bias. “He’s just trying to bend the rules as much as we can,” Askew said. “We’ve done a lot with brake bias. That’s pretty much all we can change.”
Fans also can watch Askew practicing via a YouTube channel provided by De Giorgis, who has chatted with viewers about the car’s laps in real time during the streams that are available by clicking here.
It’s all relatively new to Askew, who doesn’t even have a sim rig at his Indianapolis home. His previous sim experience mainly came on the Chevrolet simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina.
“Honesty, for me personally, I’m a little late to the party,” Askew said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that. I’m young and they assumed I’ve been doing this. I’ve never even had my own iRacing account before. Guys like (McLaren driver) Lando Norris, (Watkins Glen winner) Sage (Karam), all these guys have been streaming live on Twitch and have been running iRacing for multiple years now.
“ It’s a great way to get fans engaged in the race weekend and get eSports get bigger and bigger every year. Very interesting moving forward. It’s cool that IndyCar has dipped their feet into these waters now. Even once the season starts, I wouldn’t be surprised if we do more of these races.”
If so, he and his team have learned to keep an eye on Power, a real-world ace on road courses. During some practice races Thursday, Askew thought he’d done well by qualifying third, but Power then put a half-second on the field by winning the pole position.
“Will is unbelievably quick and does the same things in real life as well,” said Askew, who did turn the fastest lap in the practice race. “He just pulls it out somehow. That’s where the engineers and our staff in Indy come into play because they’re able to watch his on-board in real time and replay his on board to figure out what he’s doing to get the most of out of his car in the video game.
“It gets the creative juices flowing again. It’s still very different from real life, but I think we’re going to be able to start the season a little more fresh than we would have without this.”