Book excerpt: Steve Letarte’s Leading the Way


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.

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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, and

Dr. Diandra: How level is the playing field after 50 Next Gen races?


Last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 marks 50 Next Gen races. The 2022 season produced 19 different winners, including a few first-career wins. Let’s see what the data say about how level the playing field is now.

I’m comparing the first 50 Next Gen races (the 2022 season plus the first 14 races of 2023) to the 2020 season and the first 14 races of 2021. I selected those two sets of races to produce roughly the same types of tracks. I focus on top-10 finishes as a metric for performance. Below, I show the top-10 finishes for the 13 drivers who ran for the same team over the periods in question.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars, limited to drivers who ran for the same team the entire time.

Because some drivers missed races, I compare top-10 rates: the number of top-10 finishes divided by the number of races run. The graph below shows changes in top-10 rates for the drivers who fared the worst with the Next Gen car.

A graph showing drivers who have done better in the next-gen car than the Gen-6 car.

Six drivers had double-digit losses in their top-10 rates. Kevin Harvick had the largest drop, with 74% top-10 finishes in the Gen-6 sample but only 46% top-10 finishes in the first 50 Next Gen races.

Kyle Larson didn’t qualify for the graph because he ran only four races in 2020. I thought it notable, however, that despite moving from the now-defunct Chip Ganassi NASCAR team to Hendrick Motorsports, Larson’s top-10 rate fell from 66.7% to 48.0%.

The next graph shows the corresponding data for drivers who improved their finishes in the Next Gen car. This graph again includes only drivers who stayed with the same team.

A graph showing the drivers who have fewer top-10 finishes in the Next Gen car than the Gen-6 car

Alex Bowman had a marginal gain, but he missed six races this year. Therefore, his percent change value is less robust than other drivers’ numbers.

Expanding the field

I added drivers who changed teams to the dataset and highlighted them in gray.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

A couple notes on the new additions:

  • Brad Keselowski had the largest loss in top-10 rate of any driver, but that may be more attributable to his move from Team Penske to RFK Motorsports rather than to the Next Gen car.
  • Christopher Bell moved from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021. His improvement is likely overestimated due to equipment quality differences.
  • Erik Jones stayed even, but that’s after moving from JGR (13 top-10 finishes in 2020) to Richard Petty Motorsports (six top 10s in 2021.) I view that change as a net positive.

At the end of last season, I presented the tentative hypothesis that older drivers had a harder time adapting to the Next Gen car. Less practice time mitigated their experience dialing in a car so that it was to their liking given specific track conditions.

But something else leaps out from this analysis.

Is the playing field tilting again?

Michael McDowell is not Harvick-level old, but he will turn 39 this year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 35. Both have improved with the Next Gen Car. Chase Elliott (27 years old) and William Byron (25) aren’t old, either, but their top-10 rates have gone down.

Drivers running for the best-funded teams earned fewer top-10 finishes while drivers from less-funded teams (mostly) gained those finishes.

Trackhouse Racing and 23XI — two of the newest teams — account for much of the gains in top-10 finishes. Ross Chastain isn’t listed in the table because he didn’t have full-time Cup Series rides in 2020 or 2021. His 9.1% top-10 rate in that period is with lower-level equipment. He earned 27 top-10 finishes in the first 50 races (54%) with the Next Gen car.

This analysis suggests that age isn’t the only relevant variable. One interpretation of the data thus far is that the Next Gen (and its associated rules changes) eliminated the advantage well-funded teams built up over years of racing the Gen-5 and Gen-6 cars.

The question now is whether that leveling effect is wearing off. Even though parts are the same, more money means being able to hire the best people and buying more expensive computers for engineering simulations.

Compare the first 14 races of 2022 to the first 14 of 2023.

  • Last year at this time, 23XI and Trackhouse Racing had each won two races. This year, they combine for one win.
  • It took Byron eight races to win his second race of the year in 2022. This year, he won the third and fourth races of the year. Plus, he’s already won his third race this year.
  • Aside from Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win, this year’s surprise winners — Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney — are both from major teams.

We’re only 14 races into the 2023 season. There’s not enough data to determine the relative importance of age versus building a notebook for predicting success in the Next Gen car.

But this is perhaps the most important question. The Next Gen car leveled the playing field last year.

Will it stay level?

NASCAR weekend schedule at World Wide Technology Raceway, Portland


NASCAR’s top three series are racing this weekend in two different locations. Cup and Craftsman Truck teams will compete at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, and the Xfinity Series will compete at Portland International Raceway.

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Cup and Trucks)

Weekend weather

Friday: Partly cloudy with a high of 87 degrees during Truck qualifying.

Saturday: Sunny. Temperatures will be around 80 degrees for the start of Cup practice and climb to 88 degrees by the end of Cup qualifying. Forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 93 degrees around the start of the Truck race.

Sunday: Mostly sunny with a high of 92 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 1 – 8 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 6:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series

Track activity

  • 10 – 10:45 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 10:45 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (160 laps, 200 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 4

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (240 laps, 300 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)


Portland International Raceway (Xfinity Series)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 77 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly sunny with a high of 73 degrees and no chance of rain around the start of the Xfinity race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 6-11 p.m. Xfinity Series

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 10 a.m.  — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Xfinity practice (No TV)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity race (75 laps, 147.75 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Cup playoff standings after Coca-Cola 600


The severe penalty to Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing team Wednesday for a counterfeit part dropped Briscoe from 17th to 31st in the season standings. Briscoe now must win a race to have a chance at the playoffs.

The penalty came a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for his retaliation in wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. Elliott is 28th in the points. The 2020 Cup champion also needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.

Ten drivers have won races, including Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney. That leaves six playoff spots to be determined by points at this time. With 12 races left in the regular season, including unpredictable superspeedway races at Atlanta (July 9) and Daytona (Aug. 26), the playoff standings will change during the summer.

Among those without a win this season are points leader Ross Chastain and former champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Elliott.

Here’s a look at the Cup playoff standings heading into Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Drivers in yellow have won a race and are in a playoff position. Those below the red line after 16th place are outside a playoff spot in the graphic below.

NASCAR issues major penalties to Chase Briscoe team for Charlotte infraction


NASCAR fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him six races, along with penalizing Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team 120 points and 25 playoff points each for a counterfeit part on the car.

The issue was a counterfeit engine NACA duct, said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, on Wednesday. That is a single-source part.

MORE: Updated Cup playoff standings

The team stated that it accepts the L3 penalty.

“We had a quality control lapse and a part that never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack ended up on the No. 14 car at Charlotte,” said Greg Zipadelli in a statement from the team. “We accept NASCAR’s decision and will not appeal.”

Asked how then piece could have aided performance, Sawyer said Wednesday: “Knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way, shape or form from a performance advantage.”

The penalty drops Briscoe from 17th in the season standings to 31st in the standings. Briscoe goes from having 292 points to having 172 points. He’ll have to win to make the playoffs. Briscoe has no playoff points at this time, so the penalty puts him at -25 playoff points should he make it.

Briscoe’s car was one of two taken to the R&D Center after Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 for additional tear down by series officials.

The penalty comes a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.