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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Supercross: Tomac, Roczen square off in Arlington; Webb gives chase

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The Monster Energy Supercross championship battle remains tight after Eli Tomac took the lead from Ken Roczen just last week at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Now the series heads to Arlington, Texas, and the AT&T Stadium for Round 8. (Watch on NBCSN or stream live.)

Tomac’s third win of the 2020 season and Roczen’s third-place finish at Tampa gives Tomac a four-point advantage in what is essentially a wide-open title fight with three races on tap in Arlington.

And while it is still much too early to call this a two-man battle, Cooper Webb is 11 points back with Justin Barcia 20 points out and Adam Cianciarulo 27 points in arrears – and all three cannot afford to lose any ground this week.

Tomac has the momentum. He allowed the field to get a jump after finishing seventh at Anaheim in the season opener, but finished fourth or better in the remaining events.

Roczen also got off to a slow start in Anaheim 1 with a sixth-place finish. He seemed to have a firm grasp on the red plate with four consecutive podium finishes until he slipped to sixth for a second time at San Diego.

Webb is coming into his own with three consecutive podiums in the last three events. If not for a 12th at St. Louis, he would be in immediate contention for the red plate.

This week is the second Triple Crown race of the season and Roczen hopes he has the same success as he did at Glendale. He won all three Mains that weekend and easily walked away with the overall victory. Tomac finished 2-2-3 for second overall. It is going to be imperative that a rider takes the early lead.

Blake Baggett qualified for last week’s Main, but chose to sit it out after experiencing sever muscle spasms. He will ride in Arlington.

Henry Miller will return to riding at Arlington after breaking a scapula in Australia.

Subscribe to the Supercross Pass for complete qualification and race coverage of the 2020 season.

For the third time in his career, Shane McElrath started the season with a victory. He won the season-opener in 2017 and 2018 in the West division at Anaheim, but failed to lock down a 250 title. His seventh career win moved him to 25th on the chart, however, with Travis Pastrana, Trey Canard, and a host of others.

Chase Sexton got his title hunt off to a strong start last week as well. He finished second to earn his 10th podium in 19 starts, but he will be hungry for a win. Despite the fact that he won last year’s 250 West championship, he has only one race victory to his credit.

Last week, Jeremy Martin looked like he had not been off his bike for more than a year. Returning from a 2018 injury, Martin snagged a podium finish in his first race back.

Schedule:

Qualifying: 1 p.m. on NBC Sports Gold
Race: 8:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Gold and NBCSN

Last Week:

Eli Tomac beat Cooper Webb and Ken Roczen in the 450 class.
Shane McElrath beat Chase Sexton and Jeremy Martin in the 250 class.

Last Dallas race (February, 2019):

Cooper Webb beat Ken Roczen and Marvin Musquin in the 450 class.
Austin Forkner beat Justin Cooper and Chase Sexton in the 250 class.

Points Leaders

450s:
Eli Tomac (155)
Ken Roczen (151)
Cooper Webb (144)
Justin Barcia (135)
Adam Cianciarulo (128)

250 West:
Dylan Ferrandis (135)
Justin Cooper (128)
Austin Forkner (122)
Brandon Hartranft (110)
Alex Martin (98)

250 East:
Shane McElrath (26)
Chase Sexton (23)
Jeremy Martin (21)
Garrett Marchbanks (19)
Jordon Smith (18)

Wins

450

(3) Eli Tomac (Anaheim 2, Oakland and Tampa)
(2) Ken Roczen (St. Louis and Glendale)
(1) Justin Barcia (Anaheim 1)
(1) Cooper Webb (San Diego)

250 West

(3) Dylan Ferrandis (Anaheim 2, Oakland, and San Diego)
(2) Austin Forkner (St. Louis and Glendale)
(1) Justin Cooper (Anaheim 1)

250 East

(1) Shane McElrath (Tampa)

Top-5s

450

(6) Eli Tomac
(6) Cooper Webb
(5) Jason Anderson
(5) Ken Roczen
(5) Justin Barcia
(3) Adam Cianciarulo
(2) Zach Osborne
(2) Blake Baggett
(1) Justin Hill

250 West

(5) Dylan Ferrandis
(5) Austin Forkner
(5) Justin Cooper
(4) Michael Mosiman
(4) Brandon Hartranft
(3) Alex Martin
(1) Christian Craig
(1) Jett Lawrence
(1) Jacob Hayes
(1) Luke Clout

250 East

(1) Shane McElrath
(1) Chase Sexton
(1) Jeremy Martin
(1) Garrett Marchbanks
(1) Jordon Smith

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