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New Challenges, New Beginnings

November 24 - - When Steve Letarte met Jeff Gordon for the first time, the driver had a crew chief named Ray, a wife named Brooke, a single-digit win total, and an empty shelf where he hoped to place his first championship trophy. Through all of the changes over the past 15 years, Letarte's professional life always had a singular focus: get the #24 car to Victory Lane.

Letarte started with the team as a high school student who migrated south from Maine with his parents. Ray Evernham brought him in as part of a work-study program. Letarte performed several jobs in the #24 shop after school as Gordon raced to the 1995 NASCAR championship. The following season he became a tire specialist and was later trained as a mechanic. Along the way Gordon secured the 1997 and 1998 NASCAR titles, racking up 23 victories in just two seasons.

As the years progressed, Letarte got married and started a family. He ascended to the car chief's role under Robbie Loomis following the departure of Evernham. The trophies and accolades continued with the 2001 NASCAR title. In 2002, the team moved into a state-of-the-art shop on the Hendrick Motorsports campus. The driver went through a contentious divorce, the championship system was revised, and new teammates emerged. Through it all, Letarte drove down Stowe Lane every day focused solely on getting Gordon to turn a faster lap time.

When Robbie Loomis resigned in 2005, Letarte was thrust into the role of crew chief. At the age of 26, he took on the challenge and pressure of leading Gordon's race team. It didn't take long for success to follow as Gordon scored a victory at Martinsville Speedway in Letarte's sixth race as crew chief. Letarte made the call to keep Gordon on the track during a late race caution period. The race winner at Martinsville has traditionally received a grandfather clock. "I think Steve may have just earned himself a clock today," Gordon said in Victory Lane.

The duo came out firing on all cylinders in 2007 as NASCAR eased its new-look Car of Tomorrow into the sport. Gordon set a modern-era record with 30 top-10 finishes and scored 6 victories. He outscored the competition by more than 350 points. However, Jimmie Johnson's late-season streak of four consecutive victories in the Chase wrestled the title from Gordon.

From 2008-2010, Gordon scored just one victory and his Chase performances were a source of disappointment for the driver, crew chief, and fan base. In 2009, Letarte, who had battled weight issues for most of his adult life, committed himself to a healthy diet and physical fitness. The crew chief was able to shed more than 50 pounds and showed up in 2010 looking and feeling better than he had in a decade. Unfortunately, Gordon continued to struggle for victories in 2010 and the team's performance deteriorated as the Chase wound down.

Following the season, team owner Rick Hendrick restructured the organization. Letarte remains in the same office he's inhabited since 2005 and will continue to work closely with crew chief Chad Knaus. But he now has a new driver in Dale Earnhardt Jr, a new car number to follow, and a new focus for his professional life.

In a Q&A column for Racer.com in 2009, Letarte touched on the need for internal change. "Some day I might not be the right guy here and so long as we can talk about it like adults, I'd accept it if Rick Hendrick said there needs to be a change, whether I agree or disagree," Letarte said. "Sometimes change is for the better, sometimes it provokes new conversation not necessarily better conversation and sometimes it motivates guys. It's not a question of blame: it's a question of business."

I understand the desire of some fans to see changes in the #24 team. But I've never understood -- nor will I ever understand -- the level of vitriol and personal animosity that some have for Letarte. No matter the situation, he was always extremely candid and honest. Through the years, Letarte never hid from the responsibility and accountability of his job. His efforts over the last 15 years have been woven into Gordon's career tapestry of success. Best of luck S.L. -- thanks for the years and miles.


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