Gordon, new chief look forward to '06

Associated Press
Published September 16, 2005

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Steve Letarte has spent 10 years training to be a crew chief. His time is finally here, and it comes under a glaring spotlight: Letarte will make his debut this weekend in New Hampshire running four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon's team.

"I don't think there is any more pressure working with Jeff than if I was with any other team," Letarte said Thursday. "The pressure is only what you put on yourself."

Still, it's a huge job for a 26-year-old with zero crew chief experience.

But Letarte has been with Hendrick Motorsports since he was 15, interning in a work-study program as a parts assistant on Gordon's car. He was a full-time Hendrick employee the next year, soaking up everything he could under Ray Evernham's tutelage.

While Evernham was guiding Gordon to two of his championships, Letarte was moving up the chain and gaining more and more responsibility. He remained on Gordon's team under crew chiefs Brian Whitesell and Robbie Loomis as a central figure for three of Gordon's titles.

Letarte moved onto the pit box this season as the car chief, playing a larger role in the decisionmaking during a race. So when Loomis stepped down Wednesday, four days after Gordon failed to make Nextel Cup's Chase for the Championship, Letarte was the obvious choice to succeed him.

"When we first talked about (Loomis leaving), Steve's name was the first and only one discussed," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "He's a talented young man, and we're looking forward to a bright future with him as crew chief."

As soon as Gordon failed to make NASCAR's playoffs, it made sense for Hendrick to move Letarte up. With nothing left to gain over the final 10 races of this season, Gordon and Letarte will spend the rest of the year working on their communication and getting ready for 2006.

For Gordon, this will be his fourth - and youngest - crew chief, but he has no qualms.

"I've worked with Steve for more than 10 years and we already communicate extremely well, both on and off the track," Gordon said. "The team has a ton of confidence in his abilities, so we're looking forward to the last 10 races of 2005 and getting an early jump on next year."