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Driver's comfort is chief concern

So much rides on the crew chief's touch, and dialogue can get heated.

By BRANT JAMES
Published October 1, 2006


KANSAS CITY, Kan. - Jeff Gordon's plea came in high pitch and exasperated words over the team radio. Just seven laps into the Brickyard 400 in August, his car was coming undone beneath him. All he knew was he heard a pop moments after a restart. And that he couldn't hold it together much longer.

Steve Letarte keyed his microphone and dictated a plan as if this disaster-in-waiting was somewhere in his notes. One pit stop. Assess the damage. Pit again, begin fixing the detached sway bar caused by a blown tire. A third stop, after the hobbled No. 24 Chevrolet fell two laps down. Tell the driver this could work out.

Gordon calmed. He went to work with what he could control, driving back to the front. From 41st, in the next 230 laps Gordon climbed to 16th, gained two spots to eighth in the standings and continued a march that has him second in points today before the third race of the Chase for the Championship at Kansas Speedway.

"That's the personality side of being a crew chief," Letarte said. "Some crew chiefs don't work like that. Some are very intense and very emotional and they work better with very calm drivers. Jeff is not a very calm driver. He is emotional to the point where he is very competitive. ... I don't even try to make it calm on the radio. I just try to tell him the facts.

"At Indy, I didn't try to sell it. I just reminded him what he already knew and let him think about it."

Letarte is the voice of reason. Chad Knaus is the overlord, obsessive over every detail of Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet team, right down to the appearance of his crew before flights on race weekends. Tony Eury Jr. is often the whipping boy for cousin Dale Earnhardt Jr., as evidenced by the NC-17 nature of their radio conversations and the fact they were separated most of last season because their professional relationship was affecting their personal one.

No team is successful unless the crew chief gives the driver a good car and provides what he needs in the race to stay informed, energized, or relaxed.

The teammate

Robbie Reiser took it as no small slight last year when Roush Racing president Geoff Smith suggested that the working relationship between him and longtime driver Matt Ken-seth had peaked, that maybe it was time they be separated.

The pair had not only won the 2003 Nextel Cup title together, but drove against each other back in Wisconsin. Kenseth drove a Busch car Reiser owned well before they came to Roush Racing in 1999 and Reiser became his crew chief.

Deeper even, they shared parallel childhoods, leaning under the hood of cars as their fathers showed them how to do things right.

Reiser recites the month they began working together back home like a wedding anniversary: April, 1997. Ten years together is an eternity in racing.

"His dad spent a lot of time with him and my dad spent a lot of time with me, and we worked together building race cars and learned off what our dads taught us," Reiser said. "I think our upbringing is basically the same. So we get along and look at racing in the same set of eyes almost."

It's that sense of mutual ownership in a dream that has made the pair one of the most stable and productive in the garage. Only Tony Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli have been together longer. The closeness of their working relationship can be heard in the simplicity of their radio conversations, where few words, inflection and Midwestern sarcasm communicate volumes.

"I don't think Matt needs a psychiatrist," Reiser said. "I don't think Matt needs a cheerleader. He's looking for me to help him. ...

"He's got a mind of his own and he kind of knows what he's looking for, but he also on certain days gets lost and he's looking for us to help him along."

The pair doesn't do as much together away from the track now, with Reiser having a 9-year-old and 4-year-old twins and Kenseth's life being as busy as any Nextel Cup driver's. They did catch a Packers preseason game together with their families when they used Kenseth's plane to fly to Cincinnati late this summer.

"I think it's probably worked for so long because we've had a respect for each other," Kenseth said. "We probably would not have ended up together if the results weren't good. We listen to each other, trust each other."

They enter today third in points, 18 behind leader Jeff Burton in a vintage, consistent Kenseth-Reiser season. Kenseth has four wins and 18 top-10 finishes in 28 races.

Reiser admits he and Kenseth took Smith's comments as a personal challenge, but Reiser was still stung by them. Not even a perfectionist, he said, expects to repeat a season like 2003, when Kenseth was so consistent he took the title - in the last season before the Chase format was implemented - with only one win.

"We just go to work at this and do the best we can, and racing is always going to have its peaks and valleys," Reiser said. "I have a lot of respect for who Matt Kenseth is and the skill that he's got, and I think he has respect for the team we have here. ... He also realizes we're going to give him 100 percent no matter if we're running bad or running good. I think that's what kept it together."

The voice of reason

Don't play poker with Letarte. Either he's a master bluffer, or he really doesn't feel any pressure being the crew chief of one of the most successful, loved, hated and scrutinized drivers in Nextel Cup. It's hard to tell which truth would be more impressive.

But at 27, in his first full season as the four-time champion's crew chief, Letarte is pulling it off. A season after Gordon missed the Chase and was 11th in points - his worst finish since his 1993 rookie year - Letarte has helped him reclaim his legacy.

Yes, Letarte will say, he has been at Hendrick Motorsports for 12 years, 31/2 as Gordon's car chief, and that's why he felt an instant sense of comfort with the 35-year-old. But it's his calls now that can make or break a high-profile championship bid. His reputation. His career.

No, he said - convincingly - "it's just a race."

"I know that doesn't make for a good story and it's not very exciting, but when I'm at a racetrack or I'm at the shop, I live it, dream it, breathe it. It is everything. It consumes me," he said. "But I have a 2½-year-old little boy and a 9-month-old little girl and when I leave the racetrack, I leave the racetrack to see them. And I think that makes me make better decisions.

"If you think it's life or death, you don't know enough people in the world."

Letarte's cool demeanor was tested, he admits, when he made his first decisive call in the fall at Martinsville. His pit strategy worked, separating him and Gordon from Johnson and Knaus and Stewart and Zipadelli and they won their first race together.

"Our deal is really simple: He leaves it up to me. It's 100 percent my decision," Letarte said. "It's up to me to ask questions of whether he thinks we need to pit or not or how is the car driving or anything like that. I don't question the moves he makes on the racetrack. ... And if I make a poor decision to pit and we lose 20 spots on the racetrack, he doesn't question that. We trust each other with blind faith and I think that's what makes it successful."

Letarte's unflappability has impressed Gordon this year as they have won twice and maintained a top-10 points spot all but six weeks.

"He acts like a guy who never falters, never questions, he just knows how to make a decision, go with his gut, whether it is the right one or the wrong one," Gordon said. "He certainly sounds very confident to me and makes me believe in it. That is extremely important."

Whatever the driver needs.