Steve Letarte Is Thriving In His Role As Crew Chief For Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Being a crew chief is often a thankless job. When you win, the credit more often than not goes to the guy behind the wheel, and not the guy turning the wrenches or sitting atop the pit box. Yet when you lose, the blame almost always falls on your shoulders.

All this is magnified by a hundred when you're the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But despite the pressure cooker that he works within, Steve Letarte is thriving in his role as the man calling the shots for NASCAR's most popular driver.

When Letarte took over in November 2010, Earnhardt Jr. was coming off consecutive seasons where he not only failed to win a single race, but he also hadn't come close to making the Chase. This is why team owner Rick Hendrick tasked Letarte with not only getting the 88 team back on track and to Victory Lane, but to restore the confidence of a driver whose ego had taken a severe beating.

And it was an opportunity Letarte relished.

"I think the most important thing we did, when Mr. Hendrick made the changes to the race team, we started with a blank sheet of paper," Letarte said Tuesday during a NASCAR teleconference which featured himself and Hendrick. "We didn't take any preconceived notions of what Dale's strengths or weaknesses were. I personally didn't listen to anybody else's opinions on Dale.

"We sat down and went through what we thought the concerns were, the strengths were. We took a very methodical approach. We kind of walked before we could run and tried to run before we thought we could win."

While it took a little longer than expected for Earnhardt Jr. to return to the winner's circle, it was evident almost from the get go that this was a pairing that would pay dividends, as Earnhardt Jr. collected seven top 10 finishes in the year's first 14 races, and at one point was as high as third in the standings. And when the Chase commenced in September, thanks to Letarte's leadership, there was Earnhardt Jr. competing for the championship for the first time in three years.

One of the biggest reasons for the dramatic turnaround in 2011 was the chemistry that Letarte developed with Earnhardt Jr., as the two had a rapport that went beyond just driver and crew chief.

"I think the chemistry we have, it's very unique," Letarte said. "I think Dale and I became very good friends as we started to work together. But the trust is something that I think builds over time. It's just due to our tremendous amount of hard work by the team and Dale."

Yet, despite the many successes the two experienced in 2011, there was no escaping the fact that Earnhardt Jr. still had yet to win a race in three full seasons, and until that drought was eradicated, Letarte's tenure as crew chief would be viewed as a failure.

Such is life when you are guiding the team for the face of the sport and every call you make -- be it for tires, fuel or whatnot -- is second- and third-guessed by a legion of fans who desperately want to see their favorite driver win again.

"I think it's probably the hardest job out there," Hendrick said. "I just don't think Stevie gets near enough credit for what he's accomplished."

But even after a convincing and dominant victory Sunday in Michigan that snapped Earnhardt Jr.'s 143-race winless streak, it's still not mission accomplished for Letarte. After all, there are more races to win and a possible championship to compete for.

"We'd be lying if we didn't think we had opportunities to win races through the summer," Letarte said. "That's what we do. That's why the team is assembled. That's why Mr. Hendrick is in racing, to win races. If you don't think you can win, you should stay home."

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