Book excerpt: Steve Letarte’s Leading the Way

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In Leading the Way, NBC analyst Steve Letarte shares behind-the-scenes stories of one of the most successful rebuilding projects in NASCAR, turning the sport’s most popular driver, whose confidence bottomed out amid questionable work habits, into an assured and diligent championship contender.

Letarte tells NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan of the never-before-revealed fierce arguments, lighthearted moments and unbridled joy shared with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a four-year, cross-country odyssey from the highs of a magical 2014 Daytona 500 win to the lows of a career-threatening concussion.

You can order the book at SteveLetarte.com, Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

In this excerpt, Letarte goes back to the 2012 Father’s Day weekend at Michigan International Speedway that saw tumult and tempers inside the No. 88 hauler as the team struggled. This was the first event at the repaved track. Speeds were over 200 mph. Tires were blistering. Goodyear brought in a new left-side tire during the weekend and a practice session was added to help teams adjust. Frustration was high. 

The final practice happened after the Xfinity race, which made it a major inconvenience, because it kept us in the garage for about four hours longer than normal.

The June race at Michigan usually falls on Father’s Day weekend, and Motor Racing Outreach, a traveling race track ministry, holds a Father’s Day Olympics for the families of the drivers, crew chiefs and team members. My wife, Tricia, and my kids were staying with me that weekend.

The Father’s Day Olympics is a family competition that consists of relays, games, nail painting, and other funny, goofy things that the dads do with their kids.

And now I wasn’t going to be able to make it, even though it was starting after the last practice. We had to scramble to get the car ready for Sunday. The garage was staying open longer, and as long as it was, I had to be there with my team to work.

So I had to tell my family Friday night that I couldn’t be there the next day, which was one more thing weighing on me.

It was like we went from a relaxing vacation at a nice resort to our room not being ready and them losing our luggage.

Everyone was just mad. And then Dale and I had our biggest meltdown ever during the final practice.

He already was angry because he wanted to run more laps and tune the car, and I told him that we had to focus only on scuffing tires because it wouldn’t matter how fast we were if we blew a tire.

As a crew chief, sometimes you have to be the dad and send the kids to bed when they want to stay up. You don’t want to do that if they’re having fun playing Monopoly, but it’s your job.

So that was the deal as I made him scuff tires for the race. When we were done with that, he wanted to make a twenty-lap run and figure out what was wrong with the car’s handling. “No. Dale. I have (Director of Engine Operations) Jeff Andrews saying we can’t. We’re out of laps.”

So now Dale was madder than hell that we couldn’t go back on the track to improve.

“How are we supposed to get ——— ing better if we can’t practice?”

“This isn’t my decision! It doesn’t matter how fast you are if this son of a bitch blows up either! I’m dealing with what is coming my way.”

So Dale came flying into the garage stall at one hundred miles per hour, nearly running over people, and threw the steering wheel on the dash as pissy as he could. As he got out, I tried to stay calm, trying to do the right thing.

“Okay, we’ll make a couple of changes and make a couple of laps.”

Dale was bitching on his radio the whole way back to the garage from the final run. I climbed down from the roof of the hauler and went right to the lounge to wait for him. He stormed in and started crucifying me.

I told him we needed some time apart, but he just stayed on me. So finally, I snapped.

“You are not ——— ing helping the situation! So I’ll see you at the debrief.”

The Hendrick debrief with all four drivers and crew chiefs was an hour after practice.

Dale kept talking a little bit, and I looked up from my laptop.

“We’re ——— ing done here. You can go. Matter of fact, you need to go. You have a bus. Get out of my trailer. I’ll see you at the debrief.”

Instantly, you could see the look on his face that he had no idea what all that meant. I’m normally the jovial guy who never loses his temper. It was kind of like when Rick Hendrick slams his hand down in a meeting — it gets everyone’s attention.

Dale had never seen me get to that moment before. It reminded me of making the 2011 Chase at Richmond when (Hendrick Motorsports President)Marshall Carlson had to talk me off the cliff. I was at that point again, but Dale wasn’t in the car; this time, he was right there with me, and he could see it.

No one was blaming anyone by name, but the actions seemed like people were being blamed. The way he was treating me, I reacted to it.

How dare he say this was my fault? We brought a fast race car, and then Goodyear changed the tire. So, we had to scuff more tires and couldn’t work on the car because of the engine restrictions.

How dare he cuss me up and down about fixing this car? I’d had enough.

When I got to the debriefing, Dale was the first guy there. (Vice President of Development) Doug Duchardt later told me he had arrived ten minutes earlier.

That was where our friendship really helped. We didn’t make it personal. He respected me enough, so we sat down and talked and talked and talked. And we learned … nothing.

I would love to tell you we solved it, but when we got done, I was no smarter than I was during the middle of our disastrous practice.

The silver lining came when I got back to my bus. TJ Majors, Dale’s spotter, had taken my place in the Father’s Day Olympics, and he was there hanging with my family and laughing about having his toenails painted pink and his feet painted green with a big 88 painted in black.

TJ had heard I was going to miss the Olympics, so after returning from practice, he went and did all the games, relays and toe-nail-painting with my kids. I’m sure he had many other things he wanted to do on a Saturday, but that was the environment we created around our team.

He played along and said, “I’ll do it,” because he wanted to take whatever pressure off me that he could. He was the stand-in dad that day for my kids, and they were so thankful. My son actually won the Olympics in his age group with TJ’s help.

Later that night at my bus, my wife, Tricia, could tell something was up and asked what was wrong.

“We’re awful. We’re going to be lapped at, like, Lap 10. We’re not even close.”

Tricia said she couldn’t recall me ever saying something like that before. Usually it was “We’re not that bad. We just have to get this a little bit better.”

Not this time. There was no sales pitch here.

“We’re miserably slow.”

“Oh my goodness,” she said.

*****

They dropped the green, and we sank like a stone.

But it was because Dale knew the car wasn’t great, so he wasn’t going to crash it. This is what makes him so special, and sometimes irritating at the same time. He has this calming mind-set that he knows how long four hundred miles is better than anyone.

Dale isn’t going to crash the car even if it’s handling poorly. Years before, he might have, but now we’ve built up the accountability side, so he knows that’s on him, no matter how badly the car drives. I’d beaten it into his head. “Look, you’ve just got to get me to the next pit stop so I can work on it. The car does me no good if it’s in the fence.”

It was like all the things we had built up and worked on were tested over the course of that weekend. We failed one of the tests with that meltdown, but it ended up working out all right.

On the first pit stop, we stuffed a spring rubber in the left rear, and the car settled. And then it was just smart pit strategy. We changed left-side tires only once, after the mistake at Pocono, we did whatever was necessary to be the leader.

We took the lead from Tony Stewart just past halfway, and then we were gone. We won by 5.3 seconds, an eternity in NASCAR. Dale told me afterward, “I just got out front, and I couldn’t see anyone behind me. It was nice and easy.”

The whole weekend was surreal. The best moment for a crew chief is when you stand on top of the pit box and watch your team celebrate as the car crosses the finish line.

Those guys on the team are gone as much as I am, but they don’t enjoy the same lifestyle — there is no one cleaning their house or pool or yard. I’ve asked those guys to give and give and give. That is the moment that it makes it all worth it doing what we do.

And that it worked out that I had my family there on Father’s Day (and Dale had his future wife, Amy, too) made it even more spectacular.

But the odd part looking back was, around the same time, I realized I wasn’t long for remaining a crew chief. Racing is like golf in that there are forty competitors, and while Jimmie Johnson may win five races a year, a typical racer wins once or twice a year.

You lose a lot more than you win, and all those weeks in between have to build up for that moment that you have success.

Don’t get me wrong, the world rejoiced, and I was happy. I don’t think it showed publicly, but privately, I knew that the moment, our first win together and Dale’s first in a career-high 143 races wasn’t as big as it needs to be. It was a bigger moment for everyone else.

The win didn’t move the needle for me as much as it should have. The was when it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to do this forever.

All that was wrapped into one race.

You can order the Leading the Way at SteveLetarte.com, Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

William Byron’s title hopes end in Bristol incident

title hopes end
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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William Byron‘s playoffs ended when he ran into the back of a car shortly before halfway in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Byron was running 10th and in position to advance to the second round after Saturday’s elimination race before the incident.

Byron told NBCSN’s Marty Snider that Joey Gase‘s car slowed on a straightaway and Byron ran into the back of Christopher Bell‘s car.

“I literally had nowhere to go,” Byron said. “Just ridiculous that’s what takes us out.”

Byron said he was running behind Bell, who was behind Gase, on the high side. Byron said he had Aric Almirola on his inside and could not move down there.

Byron entered the race the first driver outside the final transfer spot to the second round. He entered the race trailing Clint Bowyer by three points.

 

 

 

Three Joe Gibbs Racing cars going to rear for inspection violations

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The cars of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones will start at the rear after each car failed inspection twice before Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Busch enters the race 18 points above the cutline to transfer to the second round of the Cup playoffs. Saturday’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Busch was to have started ninth.

This is the second playoff race in a row that Busch’s team has failed inspection twice before the race and had to start at the rear. Busch started at the rear last weekend at Richmond. He finished sixth.

Hamlin has already advanced to the second round via points. He was to have started seventh.

“We’ve got 500 laps,” he said. “If we’re good enough, we’ll get to the front. Not really too worried about it in that sense.”

Jones is not in the playoffs. He would have started 20th.

NASCAR also announced that the cars of Corey LaJoie and Bubba Wallace will start at the rear for unapproved adjustments. JJ Yeley will go to the rear for a driver change since he was not listed on the preliminary entry list for the No. 15 car.

Wallace was to have started 27th. LaJoie was to have started 30th. The No. 15 was to have started 32nd with Brennan Poole as the driver.

 

Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, TV channel

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Four drivers will be eliminated from the Cup playoffs after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This marks the first time the track has been in the playoffs. The Saturday Cup race at Bristol will end the first round. The 16-driver field will be cut to 12.

William Byron (3 points behind the cutline), Cole Custer (-8), Matt DiBenedetto (-25) and Ryan Blaney (-27) are the four drivers out of a playoff spot. Clint Bowyer holds the final transfer spot.

Here is all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Bristol:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines is at 7:38 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:45 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup haulers enter the garage (screening and equipment unload) at 10:30 a.m. Garage access health screening begins at 12:30 p.m. Garage opens at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:10 p.m. Driver introductions will be at 7:15 p.m. The invocation is at 7:30 p.m. The national anthem will be performed by Joe Nichols, three-time Grammy nominee, at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the .533-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 7 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 62 degrees and a 3% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski won at Richmond. Martin Truex Jr. finished second. Joey Logano placed third for the second race in a row.

LAST POINTS RACE AT BRISTOL: Brad Keselowski won in May after Denny Hamlin lost the lead when he hit the wall. Chase Elliott ran into Joey Logano as they battled for the lead late in the event.

TO THE REAR: Denny Hamlin (two inspection failures), Kyle Busch (two inspection failures), Erik Jones (two inspection failures), Corey LaJoie (unapproved adjustments), Bubba Wallace (unapproved adjustments), JJ Yeley (driver change).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Cup starting lineup

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Three Joe Gibbs Racing cars going to the rear for inspection violations

Bubble drivers brace for Bristol battle

Pit crew change for teams of Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson

Friday 5: The thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney seek NASCAR history to advance

What upcoming Cup playoff races NASCAR fans can attend

Trevor Bayne says the fire remains to run more races

Cup playoff clinching scenarios to make Round of 12

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The first elimination race of the Cup playoffs has arrived in the form of Bristol Motor Speedway.

Tonight’s 500-lap race on the short track will determine which drivers make up the Round of 12.

Three drivers have locked themselves into the second round. Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski earned their spots via race wins at Darlington and Richmond. Denny Hamlin clinched a spot via points.

More: Brad Keselowski on pole for Bristol

That leaves nine spots for 13 drivers to compete for.

If there is a new winner, the following drivers could clinch by being ahead of the 10th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano – would clinch with 7 points: 51 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Logano has finished third in the last two playoff races (at Darlington and Richmond). Has made 23 starts at Bristol posting one pole, two wins, six top fives and 10 top 10s. Logano’s average finish is 15.3.

Martin Truex Jr. – would clinch with 20 points: 38 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Earned 22nd-place finish at Darlington and second-place finish at Richmond. Has made 29 series starts at Bristol posting two top fives and three top 10s. His average finish is 20.6.

Austin Dillon – would clinch with 21 points: 36 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Dillion has a runner-up finish at Darlington and a fourth-place result last weekend at Richmond. Has 13 starts at Bristol posting one top five and three top 10s. His average finish is 17.3.

Chase Elliott – Would clinch with 30 points: 28 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Elliott finished 20th at Darlington and fifth at Richmond. Has made nine starts at Bristol and has one pole, three top fives and four top 10s. Average finish is 12.6.

Alex Bowman – would clinch with 31 points: 27 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Bowman placed sixth at Darlington and ninth at Richmond. Has made nine series starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 22.6.

Kyle Busch – would clinch with 40 points: Just 18 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Has seventh-place finish at Darlington and a sixth-place finish at Richmond. Has made 30 Cup starts at Bristol posting two poles and a series-leading eight wins among active drivers.

Aric Almirola – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Finished ninth at Darlington and eighth at Richmond. Has made 22 starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 25.0.

Kurt Busch – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the cutoff sport. Almirola holds the tiebreaker of best finish in the current playoff round. Busch has finished eighth at Darlington and 13th at Richmond. Has 39 Cup starts at Bristol with one pole, six wins, 12 top fives and 21 top 10s. Average finish is 14th.

Clint Bowyer – would clinch with 55 points: Three points over cutoff. Finished 10th at Darlington and Richmond. Bowyer has made 29 Cup starts at Bristol with eight top fives and 16 top 10s. Average finish is 13.6.

William Byron (-3 points from cutoff; would need help to clinch): Finished fifth at Darlington and 21st at Richmond. Five Cup starts at Bristol with one top 10. Average finish of 17.2.

Cole Custer (-8 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 12th at Darlington and 14th at Richmond. Finished 25th in lone Bristol Cup start.

Matt DiBenedetto (-25 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 21st at Darlington and 17th at Richmond. Eleven Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and one top 10. Average finish of 19.1.

Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney is last on the 16 driver playoff grid heading into Bristol. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney (-27 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 24th at Darlington and 19th at Richmond. Ten Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and three other top 10s. Average finish of 20.7.

More: Blaney and DiBenedetto seek history to advance to second round

Should there be a repeat winner Saturday – Harvick or Keselowski – the following drivers would advance to the next round by being ahead of the 11th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano: Would clinch with 4 points

Martin Truex Jr.: Would clinch with 17 points

Austin Dillon: Would clinch with 18 points

Chase Elliott: Would clinch with 27 points

Alex Bowman: Would clinch with 28 points

Kyle Busch: Would clinch with 37 points

Aric Almirola: Would clinch with 48 points

Kurt Busch: Would clinch with 48 points

Clint Bowyer: Would clinch with 52 points

William Byron: Would clinch with 55 points

Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney: Could only clinch with help