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.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Top Fuel driver Austin Prock earns 2019 NHRA top rookie honors

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Having just completed a promising first year in NHRA Top Fuel competition, Austin Prock is on the road to even greater drag racing success in his career.

That’s why it’s not surprising that Prock was named the winner of the 2019 Auto Club Road to the Future Award during Monday night’s annual NHRA Awards dinner at the Ray Dolby Theater in Hollywood, California.

The Road to the Future Award is NHRA’s version of Rookie of the Year, and Prock was among the brightest young stars on the circuit this past season, including winning his first national event at the Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways in suburban Seattle, the 16th race on the 24-race schedule.

What made that first win all the more sweeter is it came at the same event that his boss, legendary 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, captured his milestone 150th career win.

One month ago, Prock set a personal best run of 3.688 seconds at 334.40 mph over veteran driver Doug Kalitta in the first round of eliminations at the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals three weeks ago in Ennis, Texas (suburban Dallas).

“I am proud of the season this Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist team put together,” Prock said in a media release. “My guys worked their asses off all season long to give me the opportunity to win the Auto Club Road the Future Award. I couldn’t have done it without them.

“I would have never been here without John Force and Robert Hight (president of John Force Racing). They gave me the opportunity to fulfill my dream and I owe the world to them. I hope I made them proud.”

Prock became only the 10th rookie in the history of the NHRA pro ranks to both win a race in their first season and also go on to win the Road to the Future award. He also was the 13th rookie in the sport’s history to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s six race playoffs.

Prock becomes the sixth John Force Racing driver to earn the Road to the Future Award, joining Tony Pedregon (1996), Hight (2005), Ashley Force-Hood (2007), Mike Neff (2008), Courtney Force (2012) and Brittany Force (2013).

Austin Prock is the son of veteran crew chief Jimmy Prock, who tuned Hight to his third career NHRA Funny Car championship this past Sunday.

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