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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