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Letarte proud to have done his part to leave No. 88 'as a great race team' | News | Hendrick Motorsports

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Letarte proud to have done his part to leave No. 88 'as a great race team'

By Gray Caldwell

CONCORD, N.C. – After 19 years with Hendrick Motorsports, Steve Letarte is moving on.

Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway was Letarte’s final race as a crew chief, and the hard work he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. put in together on the No. 88 team was as evident as ever.

Earnhardt started the race just outside of the top 10, but he found his way into the top five 40 laps into the event. When a cut in a right-rear tire forced him to pit road, Earnhardt fell as low as 35th and found himself a lap down. But he kept battling forward, and after he regained the lap during the fourth caution of the race, he raced all the way back into the top five.

Though he ultimately took home a 14th-place finish, that resiliency spoke to how Earnhardt and Letarte have built the No. 88 team over their years together.

In 2014, Earnhardt put together his best season since joining Hendrick Motorsports, and arguably one of the best seasons of his career.

He earned four wins, 12 top-five finishes and 20 top-10s, making it as far as the Contender Round as one of the final 12 drivers remaining in the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format.

That success helped Letarte feel even more comfortable with his decision to leave Hendrick Motorsports to become an analyst for NBC Sports next season.

“People ask me, ‘It’s got to be hard stepping away after such a successful season.’ My rebuttal would be, ‘No, it’s the opposite.’ I don’t know how I could ever step away with a disappointing season,” Letarte said in an exclusive interview with HendrickMotorsports.com that will run in two parts later this week. “(Hendrick Motorsports Owner) Mr. (Rick) Hendrick has given me too much, Dale has given me too much. Forget the two of them, everyone that works with me and for me down there in the 48/88 building has done everything I’ve asked them to do — missed kids’ birthdays, got on planes, flown all night all across the country, 15-hour days — they’ve done all this work under my direction. And I feel I owe it to them to give them the results that they all have deserved and earned.

“So if we weren’t running well, it would be next to impossible, I think, for me to sleep at night after Homestead, to think that I let this group down and now I’m bailing, I’m running away from a problem.”

But that wasn’t the case.

The No. 88 team is running as consistently as it ever has, and Earnhardt tweeted that after “a little time off” the team would “get back after it” for the 2015 season.

That is thanks in part to Letarte’s leadership, and the team will stay together under the new leadership of 2015 crew chief Greg Ives, who just won a Nationwide Series championship working for Earnhardt’s team—JR Motorsports.

“The Monday after Homestead, I’m going to sleep great, because there’s no championship in our future, but it is under our definition and my definition a successful year,” Letarte said. “I want to hand that to Greg and hand that to these guys as winners. I want to leave them, in my opinion, as a great race team and have kind of done my part.”

Letarte said that his favorite memories from Hendrick Motorsports will come from the friendships he fostered during his tenure. And that includes getting to know two of NASCAR’s all-time best drivers, Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt, on a personal level.

“I owe a lot to them, but to be honest I owe way more to them as the people than I ever do the race car drivers,” he said of the two drivers for whom he served as crew chief.

With his Hendrick Motorsports career officially coming to an end this week, Letarte said he feels good about where he’s leaving the No. 88 team.

And Earnhardt tweeted that the success he earned with Letarte – and the relationship they built together – will continue on.

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