Steve Letarte

Letarte: Why 2017 playoffs have chance to be best ever after Richmond missteps

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NASCAR admittedly messed up last Saturday at Richmond Raceway, and now the pressure is on as it never has been during the most critical stretch of the season.

Let me tell you why I think that is a good thing – both for the sanctioning body and the industry as a whole, and it might make the 2017 playoffs the most flawlessly executed and enduringly memorable (for the right reasons).

I’m a sports fan because I love the big stage. I love to watch Super Bowls, the World Series, Ryder Cup golf, the closing holes of the Masters. But I don’t even have to be a huge fan. I don’t know anything about Olympic handball, but I was captivated by the gold-medal match because it was the biggest stage.

Between life-threatening storms, political disagreements and cultural strife, we all as Americans want the diversions of being entertained, and nothing entertains like sports. In its quest to grow through its entertainment value, NASCAR has a platform in these final 10 races to deliver highly captivating moments.

We have the storylines to do it, from superstar veterans to rising stars. We have the great mix of teams, from perennial contenders Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske to emerging power Furniture Row Racing to beloved historical fixture Wood Brothers Racing.

Every part and piece is there to make a beautiful recipe.

But everyone who has a NASCAR hard card needs to understand they have a hand in the mix. Everyone needs to be held accountable. The most pressure to perform always is on the drivers, teams and pit crews, but now the pressure on the supporting staff also becomes real.

The restructuring of the playoffs – first in 2014 with the addition of points resets and eliminations and now this year with the addition of playoff points – has put a hyper-focus on performance these last 10 races.

That is performance that extends WAY beyond just the drivers behind the wheels, which generally is only what fans are thinking about.

You can’t focus the microscope on a nine-race playoff and a championship race and then have the officiating become a major story. But you also can’t have stories that result from questionable team ethics or missteps made by track personnel (as happened at Richmond) or even major errors by the broadcast network.

I can’t be part of the story. My job is to cover the superstars who are creating the stories. For Jeff Burton and I, we can’t forget a rule or stumble through an important setup or misspeak when a pass is coming. Rick Allen’s play-by-play call Sunday has to be at the premium level at which the winner at Chicagoland Speedway deserves.

But over the next two months of NASCAR, we are at a Super Bowl level of scrutiny. Every flag being thrown, every play being made (or not made), every commentator’s opinion – the attention and potential impact of every action by every actor at every level of every race is multiplied by a more intense spotlight that can tarnish an event with a major mistake (like Richmond) just as much as it can elevate it to greatness.

That’s where we’re at – and that’s where I want us to be. Everyone needs to feel that pressure. It’s a collective effort.

NASCAR has created a playoff system built on the essence of what makes sports great – high-pressure situations.

And no one is beyond that pressure and scrutiny, whether it’s the driver, crew chief, pit crew, engine builder, sanctioning body, track promoter, operations staff or the broadcast partners. I will have more nerves about feeling obligated to perform on air with exhaustive preparation in the final 10 races because the fan base and viewers deserve it – and they will notice it even more if we aren’t on point.

After throwing a questionable caution flag that created the opportunity for a different outcome (pit crews and a restart still were the reasons Martin Truex Jr. lost to Kyle Larson), I want to hear what NASCAR will do differently to make sure it doesn’t happen again at Chicagoland Speedway. We don’t need a detailed explanation, but NASCAR owes us a reassurance that the methods for throwing a caution have received heavy investigation and a reworking if necessary.

The pressure is on to deliver high-quality races – but it also is on everybody. I hope that everyone realizes – between teams, drivers, crew chiefs, broadcast partners and the tracks – that the final mulligan this season for the sport’s reputation was used at Richmond. Even if the ambulances are in proper position at Chicagoland, there can’t be a malfunctioning ticket scanner or something else instead. Expectations now are higher to be perfect.

Before an industry that lives in an enormous glass house starts tossing stones at the NASCAR scoring tower, everyone has to have their own stuff buttoned up. Everyone needs to be on another level of preparedness for the level of big-event opportunity that is here.

In a season with so many first-time winners and the emergence of a fresh class of stars complementing some familiar names, we have the ability to see a spectacular playoff, and everyone needs to understand the responsibility in creating that.

NASCAR is at its quintessential best with man and machine vs. man and machine, and may the best team win. It’s that simple.

The way to do that is through the NASCAR industry’s across-the-board execution, which is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

That time is now.

It’s the playoffs, and everyone must deliver on the sport’s biggest stage.

Letarte: Making the case for why teamwork works in racing

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The Daytona 500 has prompted a new wave of chatter on social media and otherwise about an age-old debate in NASCAR: Are teammates good for the sport?

After the dominance of the Toyotas in the Sprint Cup season opener, many are questioning whether teamwork is healthy for NASCAR. It’s been an ongoing dialogue for decades, and I think it’s flared up again with the recent introduction of charter system that guarantees spots for 36 cars in every race. That’s prompted some people saying, “It’ll be nine owners, four cars each.”

I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future, but I am here to make this argument to those who don’t like multicar teams: Teammates ensure a better quality of racing and a higher level of competition in auto racing.

And the two biggest auto races to happen in the world over the past month – both at Daytona International Speedway — prove exactly why.

In the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, the Corvette C7.Rs finished 1-2 in the GT LeMans class with a margin of victory of 0.034 seconds – the closest class finish in Rolex 24 history.

Oliver Gavin and Antonio Garcia finished virtually side by side after 24 hours, and that only happened because Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan allowed it. He controls both cars. So if he had said with 30 minutes remaining, “We’re done, you had nearly a full day to race it out, here’s how we’re going to finish,” he could have.

But he didn’t. He respected the sport. He respected the sanctity of racing. He allowed his two racers to compete to the finish without trying to orchestrate the outcome.

It was one of the best examples of factory-driven, big-time racing not affecting the results or predetermining a winner.

I think Joe Gibbs Racing and the Toyota Racing Development cars in the Daytona 500 is the second-best example of this.

Without a doubt, they played nice for 99% of the race until the final lap. Yes, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. purposely worked with one another, and I’m fine with that strategy.

If Hamlin hadn’t won by pulling out of line and making the winning move on the last lap, I’d be standing here today and saying that ruins racing if no one attempts to win. But the fact that Denny pulled out of line past the white flag, got the big push and won the race – that proves that large teams do not hurt racing.

Even though Hamlin claimed he won by accident in trying to block Kevin Harvick, we also heard Kyle Busch say that he planned to make the same move before Hamlin beat him to it.

Hamlin tried to win. If there were magical team orders he was worried about, he could have not won that race. He could have not passed Kenseth for the lead in the last corner.

There were some instances where the teamwork was very obvious. On some restarts, Truex started on the inside and allowed Kenseth’s faster Camry to take the lead.

I have no problem with this. These are 500-mile marathons. In the end, it’s cutthroat, and everyone wants to win, but the first thing you have to do is get through the first 11 chapters of the book. You have to get there.

I feel that they were using whatever means necessary to get there. If that means letting someone in, then that’s what they did.

I’m a racing purist who loves the sport. Having large manufacturers and multicar teams isn’t hurting racing, as long as the manufacturers, Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs, Jack Roush and other owners maintain their responsibility to continuing that that trend.

That’s because the manufacturers and those owners — not NASCAR and not the fan base – ultimately control the ability to affect the racing.

There needs to be a clear-cut line in the sand where the concept of teammates ends.

Based on their postrace comments, Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers knew when they saw the white flag, it was on. They would stick together until the last lap.

The most important part of any multicar team plan is it has to be so lucid that every driver has a window of opportunity to win the race. If your agreement is to work together, it might be until the white-flag lap, but that opportunity still exists. That’s the difference.

That’s why the five TRD drivers were OK with what happened. Maybe they didn’t like how it ended for them, but they were OK with it. Not at one point was Kenseth saying, “I can’t believe Denny, my teammate, did that.”

The plan was to let the best man win – and I like that.

If we ever lost that, then you’re going to lose a race fan in me because one car shouldn’t have to race against five.

This was a major problem with the two-car tandems that were prevalent at Daytona and Talladega five years ago. NASCAR eliminated them because only half the field had a chance in every race.

When I was a crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, there was only one team order: Don’t wreck each other while trying to win the race. That nearly happened when my driver, Jeff Gordon, tried unsuccessfully to battle his way past Jimmie Johnson for the lead in a March 2007 race at Martinsville Speedway.

Later that season, Jimmie and Jeff waged one of the greatest two-man battles for the title in NASCAR history. Jeff is Jimmie’s mentor and brought him in the sport, and he damn well didn’t expect him to give us a championship. It wouldn’t have been a way better story to say we still beat him for the title.

When the green dropped, there was a level of professional understanding among our cars. I knew I wasn’t going to ask Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, a question that I wouldn’t want him to ask me. When you’re racing your teammate in the closing laps, and I’m not going to ask which lap they’re going to pit. I’d never ask Chad Knaus to give me information for me to take advantage of him. Why would I put him in a position where he even feels like he needs to be dishonest?

It was an open book for six and a half days a week. For three hours during the race, it needed to be needed to be every car number trying to win the race for its fans, sponsors and itself. 

That’s what we saw at Daytona twice this season.

During crunch time with two of racing’s biggest prizes at stake, athletes were allowed to perform at their peak by the powers that be — unburdened by the concerns of team allegiances.

Covette Racing spent millions on competition and marketing to achieve and promote its 1-2 finish. But there became a point where the reverence for racing outweighed everything else. The priorities of carrying the Covette banner weren’t bigger than the magnitude of the Rolex 24. For the greater good, they raced tooth and nail, and it was the key to honoring the event.

Technical associations and multicar teams won’t hurt the racing if the drivers still are allowed to race.

As long as that’s what we’re doing, I’m good with it.

Letarte: Let me tell you about the Jeff Gordon I know

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When I told my son Tyler that I would no longer be Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, he cried. So did my daughter Ashlyn.

Tyler was 7 then in 2010 and Ashlyn was 5. My work identity to them was tied to Jeff. Tyler and Ashlyn cheered the No. 24 car when they watched the races. It was all about the No. 24 car for them. Then it changed. Tyler was heartbroken.

Sometime after the change, a picture arrived for Tyler. It was from Jeff. He wrote: “I know I’m not driving your dad’s car anymore, but you will always be my buddy.’’

That’s the Jeff Gordon I know.

You’ve heard the stories, you’ve seen the examples of Jeff’s generosity throughout his magnificent Sprint Cup career, which will come to an end Sunday. For each story you’ve heard about Jeff’s kindness, there are many more that you haven’t – such as what he did for Tyler after the 2010 season.

He didn’t have to send that picture, but he did. Just like Jeff didn’t have to fly down from New York City to meet after Rick Hendrick moved me from being Jeff’s crew chief to being Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief for the 2011 season.

I was a Hendrick employee, and it was Mr. Hendrick’s decision to move me from the team I had been with since 1995 when Ray Evernham hired me to sweep the floor and do other odd jobs in the shop. I wasn’t Jeff’s employee. In fact, Jeff had told me as much when I first started as his crew chief late in the 2005 season.

His only advice was to treat him like every other member of the team. I couldn’t do it. He was still my mentor, and I still had him on a pedestal by none of his doing. I couldn’t hold him as accountable as he could have been held. If I could go back and redo 2007 when we finished second to teammate Jimmie Johnson, we win going away because Jeff didn’t get anywhere near my best as a crew chief.

When I moved to Dale’s team, that’s when I fully grasped what Jeff had told me in that first meeting. The ripples from Jeff helped Dale Jr. and I have success.

There were many other lessons I learned from Jeff that helped me when I was with Dale’s team and now in my role with NBC. Jeff’s lessons came through his actions. Not everything has gone well for Jeff in his career or his life, but he’s shown how to persevere. He taught me that there’s not a storm in the garage that isn’t going to go away.

Now, he’s on the verge of a fifth title, but he’s so big that whether he wins the championship this weekend it won’t matter. He’s already iconic. He’s already a legend and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Four championships or five won’t measure his greatness.

Instead, I see Jeff’s greatness in the message he wrote to Tyler.

Letarte: Is a crew chief breakthrough on horizon?

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Is this 2011 all over again? Are crew chiefs with engineering backgrounds about to break through?

Remember 2011? That’s when two crew chiefs with engineering backgrounds – Darian Grubb with Tony Stewart and Bob Osborne with Carl Edwards – dominated the Chase for the Sprint Cup and entered the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway battling for the title. They finished 1-2 in the championship. They were so good, they tied. Tony won the crown on a tiebreaker.

Since? No crew chief with an engineering foundation has won the Sprint Cup championship. Why?

I got to thinking about that this week with the news that Chad Knaus had extended his contract with Hendrick Motorsports through 2018. Chad does not have an engineering degree. He, like myself, came up doing various jobs at Hendrick Motorsports. I started by sweeping floors at age 16, later became an underneath mechanic and car chief before becoming Jeff Gordon’s crew chief 10 years later in 2005.

If you look at the 16 crew chiefs in this year’s Chase, few have backgrounds similar to mine. Eleven of the 16 crew chiefs trained to be engineers – either they received degrees or took college courses in that field.

The five in the Chase without such experience are Rodney Childers (Kevin Harvick’s crew chief), Paul Wolfe (Brad Keselowski), Jason Ratcliff (Matt Kenseth), Tony Gibson (Kurt Busch) and Chad (Jimmie Johnson). Those five combined to win 13 of the first 26 races this season.

Does their success prove that a crew chief without engineering expertise is still the way to go or is the tide turning?

Consider these numbers:

  • In 2012, four of the 12 crew chiefs (33.3 percent) in the Chase had engineering backgrounds. None placed higher than fourth in the points. Those crew chiefs combined to win two Chase races.
  • In 2013, five of the 13 crew chiefs (38.5 percent) in the Chase had engineering backgrounds and none placed higher than fourth in the points. They won two Chase races.
  • In 2014, nine of the 16 crew chiefs (56.3 percent) in the Chase had engineering backgrounds. They placed second, third, fourth and sixth but the championship went to Harvick and Rodney, who is a former driver. Not an engineer. Engineering-based crew chiefs won three Chase races.

Now, 68.8 percent of the crew chiefs in this Chase have engineering in their past. If an engineer still doesn’t ring the bell at Homestead this year, has the experiment failed or are we going to continue to go down this road?

I feel I was a successful crew chief with Jeff and then Dale Earnhardt Jr. despite not having a college education or engineer training. I succeeded by managing people. That’s one of the most important jobs for a crew chief.

I don’t feel it’s only the crew chief’s role to make the car go fast. The task of making a car go fast already is delegated. You have the aerodynamics group, the chassis dynamics group, the simulation group and so on.

I don’t think I can delegate the role of sitting up on the pit box and making the gut decision of when to pit and when not to pit. I can’t delegate the role of pressing the button on the radio and controlling the temper of the driver and get them mentally back into the game.

With this push toward more engineers becoming crew chiefs, my question is are we being too short-sighted? Are we stuck with tunnel vision on what it takes to be a good crew chief? Are car owners making the right decisions on who should lead their teams? Or is this the future?

Well, you tell me. We’ve got 10 races to decide. Will it be a crew chief with an engineering background celebrating the championship in Homestead on NBC or not?

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