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Daytona 500 win is special for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014
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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates with crew chief Steve Letarte after winning Sunday's Daytona 500.

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 14: (L-R) Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, speaks with his crew chief Steve Letarte during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 14: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, speaks with his crew chief Steve Letarte during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 14: Steve Letarte, crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (not pictured), driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, stands in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 23: (L-R) Crew chief Steve Letarte, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, and team owner Rick Hendrick celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 23, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Steve Letarte may be one and done as a Daytona 500 champion crew chief.

Is that necessarily bad thing?

Letarte, the crew chief for NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., earned his first Daytona 500 trophy Sunday night while Earnhardt won the Great American Race for the second time in his career.

The title is also likely to be Letarte’s last.

In the offseason, Letarte, 34, decided this would be his last season as a crew chief with Hendrick Motorsports and is moving to NBC’s broadcast booth beginning with the 2015 season.

“It’s a little sad. I never really put two and two together,” said Letarte, who has worked at HMS since he was 16 years old. “When you think about making that decision, you know, so many things that are so important in my life drove that decision.

“I think I’m going to have a lot of those moments this year. I’ve done this since I was 16. I don’t know anything else. Everyone has a bucket list, and you don’t work in racing without having the Daytona 500 on your bucket list.”

Working on race cars has been Letarte’s only role in racing his entire career. In recent seasons, he had made guest appearances on Truck series broadcasts to do some commentary work and received rave reviews.

While other crew chiefs may have more wins and championships, Letarte still brings an impressive resume, working with Jeff Gordon and now Earnhardt. Letarte has never missed the Chase in any of his full seasons as a crew chief.

With NASCAR’s new championship format, Earnhardt’s 500 victory virtually ensures Letarte will complete his crew chief career with that streak intact.

“It seems a little bit surreal or awkward, but it appears that a career‑defining moment came in my last chance at (winning the 500),” he said. “It’s one of the those things that they might say I won X amount of races as a crew chief, but Daytona 500 champion will always be set out of that list.

“This one was special. I’m going to enjoy this one, for sure.”

Considering the start to the season, there doesn’t appear to be any reason why Letarte and Earnhardt won’t find themselves with more visits to Victory Lane this season.

Earnhardt seems most excited about the possibility that he and his No. 88 Chevrolet team can move forward in the coming weeks not having to worry about making the Chase and instead finding the best way to improve their seeding in it.

“Making the Chase is important. I didn’t anticipate having to put that to bed so quickly. We’ll go ahead and concentrate on winning more races,” Earnhardt said.

“At the end of last year, we felt like we were right on the cusp of doing just that, winning races. We’re turning the corner right at the right time. I got one last year with (Letarte), and we’re going to make it something special.”

It clearly already is.

Team owner Rick Hendrick certainly believes so.

“This race is so big and it is our Super Bowl, so it will carry us, this team. I’m excited to watch Stevie and Dale,” he said. “Now you’re in the Chase, just go race hard and have fun.

“I think it makes a statement how good they were last year and carrying it forward this year.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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