It seems Steve Letarte had a very good offseason.
Apparently, he figured out a way to grow a brain.
Letarte is crew chief for Jeff Gordon in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. When Gordon went all last season without winning, the first such season for Gordon since 1993, some of Gordon's fans came to believe Letarte was largely to blame.
It's an easy supposition to make. Gordon had won 81 races and four championships by the time the 2008 season began. He'd set a modern-era record with 30 top-10 finishes during 2007, winning six races as he contended for another championship right to the wire with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
So when Gordon couldn't find his way to Victory Lane last year, after having won at least twice a season since 1994, there had to be an explanation. Yes, Gordon was racing with the series' new car for a full season for the first time, but isn't it Letarte's job to make the car what it needs to be so Gordon can win?
Gordon, of course, knows it's way more complicated.
After winning the Samsung 500 a week ago at Texas Motor Speedway, Gordon talked about sending an e-mail as last offseason began to tell his crew chief he wanted to do whatever he could to be part of the solution.
“I only can play a certain role,” Gordon said. “Sure, I can be somewhat of a leader to the team because I've been around as long as I have and won the races and championships. But I'm just a tool to Steve and the team and I just want to be the best tool and asset to them that I can be.
“I was real honest with Steve over the offseason to say, ‘Man, you tell me what I need to do. You tell me what we're missing and how I can help, whether it might be from my role at Hendrick to get him something that he feels like he's missing, or as a driver, committing myself to being the best that I can be.'”
The book on Gordon was he didn't like a loose race car and that the new car had to be loose to be fast. Again, it's not that simple.
“ I've been in a lot of different types of race cars, and when the car fits what I need, we go fast,” Gordon said. “We've proven that this year. I give Steve a lot of credit, because he looked at everything all the other teams were doing to have success.”
Letarte's search for answers started with Johnson's team, with which Gordon's shares a shop. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had won another championship, but instead of letting that eat at him Letarte tried to take advantage of having that team as a resource.
“You can kind of be a little childish about it and get jealous, or you could kind of be a grown-up about it and look at all the strength they bring to the company, the direction they've given our team,” Letarte said. “When you have a superstar team and you struggle, it's easy to question the cars and pit crew and engines and everything about your company.
“But Chad and I have offices right next to one another. We have 85 employees that work for both of us. There's nobody else I'd want to beat than the teammate that has the same equipment that we have. And there's nobody else when we have an off day that I love see win. So it's a very unique relationship. … We have a true team that fields two cars and some people understand it. Some don't.”
Letarte and Gordon have themselves atop the standings as the series takes its annual Easter break, and the win at Texas snapped a 47-race streak without a victory and gave Gordon his firstCup win at that track.
“There is just a different look in the guys' eyes,” Gordon said. “You see a different effort that's being put out. It's not that you can work any harder, it's just different. The guys are just positive and a bounce in their step – all of us, including me and Steve.
“When you have that, you just have a great team that works well together, believes in one another, and all we were missing was that victory.”