New team gets off to good start

Earnhardt and crew chief Letarte achieving rapport

February 16, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The dynamics of their relationship has tweaked the interest of NASCAR fans in much the same way everyone else obsesses with that Brangelina thing.

Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. find happiness with crew chief Steve Letarte? Inquiring minds want to know.

"First of all, I've made a lot of bad decisions in my life to learn that I judge everybody off firsthand information," Letarte said. "Anybody I meet, it's pretty much a blank sheet until I have dealings with them and I see how they treat me, how they respond to what I ask them to do. … It has worked out fine.

"I don't know what his other routine was. I didn't really care what his other routine was. I know how I like to see things done on the team side and the car side, what I'm responsible for. He has requests on the driver's side that he's responsible for.

"We've laid those out. I know what is of value and what is important to him so I can make his job not easy, but as bearable as it needs to be. He does the same for me."

So far, it has been easy. Earnhardt will be on the pole for the Daytona 500.

"I'm enjoying everything I'm seeing," Earnhardt said. "It's going really well."

Adds Letarte: "What he requests out of a racecar is going to be different than Jeff Gordon. He's not Jeff Gordon.

"I'm sure I'm different than Lance (McGrew) or Tony (Eury) Jr. I'm not them. I don't try to be Ray (Evernham). I don't try to be Robbie Loomis. I've worked for some very talented crew chiefs. I've tried to pull a little bit from each one. I try to run the ship my own way."

Admiring from afar: Jimmie Johnson is two championships short of tying the mark of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for seven NASCAR Cup titles. Fans don't share the same reverence for Johnson as they do for Earnhardt, but Johnson understands the bond they had with Earnhardt.

And he misses not having had the opportunity to race against him.

"I really wish I could have experienced the intimidation factor that he had on and off the track, and being around him and watching him work through the garage area and to help advance the series and to work with NASCAR, his interaction with the fans," Johnson said.

"I hear so many stories today about him. I have a great deal of respect for who and what he was and what he did for our sport."

Policy change: It will be a family affair at NASCAR tracks this season. A revision in NASCAR's garage policy will now allow an adult with approved access — either an annual credential (hard card) or a single-event license — to bring his or her children into the NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR Nationwide and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series garages on race days.

There is no age requirement. The policy will be in effect only during the "cold" prerace period.

— George Diaz

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