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.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.