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Tuesday, June 10, 2014
The restoration of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

One time I was standing with Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus at the Hendrick haulers at Talladega. Knaus was saying nothing. Letarte was going on and on, his mouth just inches from Knaus's right ear, about some sports injury he'd had to a leg, what he'd done to rehab, and how he would be back on the golf course soon.

Knaus just gazed, like a laser, toward the garage stall where the 48 was being worked on according to his precise instructions.

Letarte's merry monologue went on. Nothing from Knaus. Not even a sideways glance at Letarte. Finally Knaus saw something he didn't like being done to the car.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Knaus said as he walked away abruptly.

Steve Letarte and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Steve Letarte and Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrate their season-opening triumph at the 2014 Daytona 500.

Letarte was still in mid-sentence and didn't stop, just turned and redirected the chatter toward me. He wasn't stung by the senior crew chief's brushoff. Indeed, he adjusted his monologue, to point out how focused Chad was, how he never let up on those cars, never stopped thinking about them.

On the other hand, Letarte was going to play golf this very afternoon, he said. That's just the way he was (and is). Liked to take a break from all this, loved to spend time with his family, pursue some hobbies ... he loved this stuff right here in this garage, but this was not his universe.

And that, by and large, is why Steve Letarte is in his last season as a crew chief, retiring at age 35, and why, beginning next year, he will be a damn fine broadcast analyst. I guarantee it.

Meanwhile, he is finishing up the monumental -- some thought impossible -- task of the restoration of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Think about this: How many happy sentences in Victory Lane at Pocono Sunday did Earnhardt end with "especially Steve Letarte." Or "obviously Steve Letarte."

No sooner had Letarte taken this job, at the end of the 2010 season, than conjecture began about who would replace him in the ongoing game of musical pit box seats in the 88 stall.

There was even talk that owner Rick Hendrick was eventually going to have to put Knaus himself in charge of the 88, because Junior, troubled as his career was, was just too valuable a commodity to let continue to flounder.

That would have been a disaster. If Chad Knaus had been made Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief in 2010, Earnhardt's career would be over by now. He just wouldn't have been able to take any more.

You hear how Knaus talks to Jimmie Johnson on the radio. Acerbic. Caustic. Sarcastic. Domineering. Cut-to-the-bone. You think Earnhardt could have, or would have, taken that?

It's not like Earnhardt is some delicate flower. It's about all that baggage he has carried since his earliest memories. (I've been around him off and on since he was 5.)

Jeff Gordon once told me he could never stand Knaus as his crew chief. Knaus told me he could never stand Gordon as his driver.

The reason Earnhardt's career was in a downward spiral for a while was that he has always understood the enormity of the expectations on him, and his inability to meet them weighed on him more and more heavily, made him press, made him fall even farther short of expectations ... and so on ...

Now Earnhardt is happier, looser, yet more focused on his game, than I have seen him since 2004, his best year -- six wins, serious Chase contender until a few weeks from the end, when he wrecked himself out at Atlanta. He was taking a chance, gunning for a win that might have put him over the top toward winning the first Chase ever.

In '04, Earnhardt had the tandem of the Tony Eurys, Pops and Tony Jr., his uncle and his cousin, atop his pit box. They went back all the way to the hardscrabble times in Kannapolis, North Carolina, when none of the Eurys or Earnhardts -- especially Dale Earnhardt Sr. and his young 'uns -- "had a pot to piss in," as they say in the Southern textile mill towns.

So the Eurys and Earnhardt understood one another completely. It was sort of like the line from that old Harry Chapin song:

Old friends
They mean much more to me than new friends
Cause they can see where you are
And they know where you've been

But the thing was, Tony Jr. and Dale Jr. had argued and picked and bickered since they were toddlers in a sandbox, and it continued on into their big-boy years in the big leagues.

So Dale Jr.'s stepmother, Teresa, Dale Sr.'s third wife, at the helm of Dale Earnhardt Inc., separated the quarreling cousins. DEI put Tony Jr. to work for Michael Waltrip's unit of the team, and a guy named Pete Rondeau in charge of her stepson's No. 8 team.

"Disaster" is an understatement.

Then and there began Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s tailspin. DEI tried to re-pair (pun intended) the cousins, and that didn't work either, and round and round and down and down it went.

So in 2008 along comes kindly Rick Hendrick to pluck Junior out of hell. Hendrick took on a driver and, in a lot of ways, a surrogate son.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte
A Sprint Cup championship would be the ultimate send-off Dale Earnhardt Jr. could give to crew chief Steve Letarte, right.

Still, the scar tissue in Junior's psyche kept re-emerging and the game of musical pit box seats went on. By the time it was Lance McGrew's turn in the seat, Kyle Busch cracked on the day of the announcement that it was never Junior's fault, always the crew chief's. And Rowdy wondered then and there (it happened to be at Dover) who would be next.

Letarte was next, and immediately came the speculation about who would be next. Ray Evernham, the crew chief who had launched Jeff Gordon, had serendipitously brought Letarte into racing by hiring middle-schooler "Stevie" to mow his lawn. When Evernham re-associated with Hendrick Motorsports this year as a consultant, there was even speculation that Evernham might go hands-on again, to revive either Gordon or Earnhardt, or both.

Those who have known Letarte since his teen years, who nurtured him up through the ranks at Hendrick, call him Stevie. Always have. "Stevie, you know the right-side pressures we want?" Evernham would ask on the radio during Gordon's glory years, when Letarte was a tire specialist at age 16.

And it is Stevie who is restoring Earnhardt. Stevie, to whom nothing is the end of the world. Stevie, who has gotten Earnhardt to relax, made him see himself as just a regular guy rather than a storm-tossed icon who never asked to be an icon.

It was Stevie who coached Earnhardt to the Daytona 500 win this year, the debris on the grille of that car no big deal. In not so many words, Letarte was just telling Junior to roll with the old mantra of his grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt: "Go or blow."

And it was Stevie who just let Junior rip on Sunday, with some debris on the grille, but not as much debris as Brad Keselowski had on his, when Earnhardt shot to the lead with four laps to go.

And now, not even halfway through the season, we can already say that Junior is in his best year in a decade.

Rarely does Junior mention Letarte without adding, "This is his last year."

So that is always on Earnhardt's mind. But what Earnhardt means is that he wants to give Letarte the best year possible on his way out.

When Steve Letarte enters the broadcast booth next year, it will be NASCAR Nation's great gain.

And Stevie will have left Dale Jr. better than he found him.