Steve Letarte tweeted a photo Tuesday of his family standing with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy, saluting the strong bonds they share.
He nearly picked a shot that wasn’t quite as family friendly … but said just as much about his friendship with the 14-time most popular driver.
“I was scrolling through the pictures in my phone, and I was a millisecond away from showing 15 overly served guys on a Wednesday night in 2014,” Letarte said with a laugh on the NASCAR on NBC podcast, describing a night of celebrating with Earnhardt and the No. 88 team at Margaritaville in Las Vegas just two weeks after winning the Daytona 500. “We sat around outside as friends for hours and drank buckets and buckets of beer and enjoyed each other’s company.
“I have a picture of us around sundown, and everyone has their arm around each other, and it’s the coolest picture.”
Letarte also has a photo of the sun coming up after an all-night party at Earnhardt’s property following their final win together in October 2014 at Martinsville Speedway, showing that “it is about the relationships” for the Hendrick Motorsports driver.
“It’s infectious,” Letarte said. “I was fortunate enough to win the Daytona 500 with him. But if I had to give back his friendship or the trophy, I’d give back the trophy.
“The accomplishments of my career are not the trophies. They’re easy to measure and easy to discuss, but the accomplishments of my career are walking down pit road and seeing crew chiefs, car chiefs, people that were my engineers that I have I helped along in my career because that’s how I got there. Jeff Gordon, Ray Evernham and Robbie Loomis helped me in my career.”
Earnhardt will remain a fixture in NASCAR after his 2017 retirement from the Cup Series as a team owner with JR Motorsports. He also is slated to drive in at least two Xfinity races and has hinted there could be more in the Camping World Truck Series and Late Models.
Letarte said it could depend on how the world adapts to Earnhardt being a part-time driver.
“It’s all how the racing community will respect him,” he said. “He would drive forever. Will the fan base be OK if Dale Jr. runs fifth in an Xfinity car? Will the fan base be OK if he goes to Martinsville and runs seventh to six young kids. Will the fan base be OK if he can’t dominate in a lower series? Because he’s not going to dominate, he’s going because he loves to race. If he could wear a costume, he’d go run a Late Model at Myrtle Beach now. That’s how he is.
“He’s smart enough to know he can’t be Dale Earnhardt Jr. and have all these partners and be this persona and be able to just hide. He can’t do both. So if the world will allow him, he’ll race a lot. I don’t know if the world is ready for that.”
Letarte said NASCAR is ready to handle the departure of Earnhardt on the heels of exits by Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, making the case that youth such as Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott will fill the void left by the superstars.
“If everyone goes on stage, there still is only one spotlight,” he said. “There’s only room for how many people can be in the spotlight. There’s no argument Dale Jr. is a spotlight driver, as are Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. The spotlight can’t shine on someone else until it shuts off on someone. It’s not doomsday, and everyone is going to start cheering for soccer.”
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