Letarte under fire as Gordon trudges along

Published 2:13 pm Wednesday, September 24, 2008

CONCORD, N.C. – Jeff Gordon has just eight more races to make it to Victory Lane and avoid his first winless season since his 1993 rookie year.

For many, it’s inconceivable that the four-time Cup champion is this far into a season without a win.

To some, crew chief Steve Letarte is squarely to blame.

Gordon won’t stand for it.

“Steve is an amazing crew chief,” he said. “Whenever we’re not performing, my fans seem to stay loyal to me, and I appreciate that. But I’m as much a part of this team and its performance as anybody else out there.

“If there’s going to be criticisms, you know, I want it to come across the board.”

But Gordon has been spared much of the criticism in a season that can only be described as disappointing. He heads into Round 3 of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship ranked eighth in the standings, 118 points behind leader Carl Edwards.

His winless streak has reached 33 straight races, dating back to an October win at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, and he’s led more than 10 laps in a race just six times this season.

Letarte, who started working at Hendrick in the parts department as a teenager and moved through the ranks to the top job with Hendrick’s winningest team, admits this season has been underwhelming for the No. 24 crew.

“My goals coming into the year were much higher than this,” he said. “This is a race team built on winning races and winning championships, so when you don’t win races, of course that’s an unsuccessful season.”

But it’s not exactly a bad season.

It’s just not the follow-up anyone expected from last year’s incredible run, when Gordon won six races and notched a NASCAR record 30 top-10 finishes in 36 events. He built a lead of more than 300 points in the regular season, and was brilliant during the Chase with two victories and an average finish of 5.1.

Problem was, teammate Jimmie Johnson was just a tick better — tallying an average finish of 5.0 to steal the title from Gordon.

Johnson, a four-time winner this season, is back in the thick of the title hunt this year. But Gordon is a bit of an underdog based on his regular-season mediocrity.

That’s led his legion of fans to question what’s wrong and critique the job Letarte has done this season.

“It’s no different than when you coach the Yankees and you miss the playoffs,” said Letarte. “It’s no surprise. To think you can take a position like this in this sport — or with any sports team — if you don’t win, you are going to take the blame. I’ve got big shoulders. I can handle it.

“But all I can do is keep doing my daily chores: try to make the car better, try to make the team better and try to win races.”

Gordon explained the criticism comes with the territory for the crew chief, who holds down a job akin to being a head coach in other sports.

“Unfortunately, we just haven’t seen the results like we did last year,” said Gordon, who has just 13 top-10s so far this season.

“It’s really easy to put aside or forget what we did last year, which to me was one of the best seasons I ever had in the Cup series. Looking at this year, just things haven’t gone our way for whatever reason. But I believe (Steve’s) the guy for the job, and he’s a confident guy that does the job well. I hate that he gets the criticism.”

Letarte also has support from team owner Rick Hendrick, who finds it somewhat amusing that the crew chief is being scrutinized after such a successful 2007 season. Instead, Hendrick blames this season’s struggles on a combination of bad luck, NASCAR’s finicky new car, Gordon’s difficulty adapting to driving it full time, and team-related miscues.

“I think Jeff Gordon would be the first guy to raise his hand and say ‘Stevie is one of the best I’ve ever worked with,’ ” Hendrick said. “Steve Letarte works hard, he’s smart, and he’s the same guy who led the points by over 300 last year and got him to finish in second in the Chase with an average (finish of 5.1) and got beat.

“He didn’t go brain dead this year. It’s really easy, in this sport, if the guy wins, it’s his talent. And if he doesn’t, it’s the crew chief’s fault. The crew chief kind of walks a plank by himself.”

Hendrick believes Gordon and Letarte can pull it together, be a factor in this championship hunt and win a race before the season is out. But Letarte doesn’t want the remaining eight weeks to be focused on simply getting back to Victory Lane and avoiding a winless season.

“We don’t worry about wins. We worry about running better,” Letarte said. “If you lead laps, you’re going to win races. If you run in the top five, you are going to win races. If you run in the top 10 or top 15, you know, the opportunity to win races gets smaller.

“So we need to have faster race cars, and lead more laps and run more competitively to expect a win. Winning is a result of having a good car and a good day. If all you do is try to win, you miss the whole point.”