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.

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”