Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte combined have almost three decades of Cup racing experience. The NASCAR Hall of Fame elected driver and longtime Hendrick crew chief won five races together and competed in 144. That was six years ago.
Junior and Letarte regularly see each other (albeit socially distanced) in the broadcast booth for “NASCAR on NBC” instead of Cup garage these days, but they’re as involved in the sport as ever with the network airing the remainder of the 2020 season.
The Observer snagged an exclusive interview with the industry insiders to discuss what they expect to see at the Daytona road course this weekend, why offense is key for drivers on the playoff bubble and what they think will stick in NASCAR in the post-COVID world.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Alex Andrejev: So, did you feel the earthquake over the weekend?
Dale Jr.: Yes, that was crazy! It was crazy. My wife and I were laying in bed and the house just started rocking. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, there was only one explanation, but I still couldn’t make myself believe it. I was like, ‘There are no earthquakes out here, but dang! What else could it have been?’
AA: I was in California for a year and never felt one, and then I moved to North Carolina in 2020 and, of course, one hits. It was so strange.
DJ: I had never felt one before either.
AA: So wild. I don’t want to take up too much of your time talking about earthquakes, though. I want to start by asking about the Daytona road course since that’s new this year. What are your expectations for that race? Who do you think is going to perform well this weekend?
DJ: Martin Truex Jr. has been extremely fast on the road courses. So has Chase Elliot. But I bet there will be a lot of competitive cars and drivers. The fact that they’re not going to get a chance to go around it in their cars until they start the race, even if they’re very good at road racing, the potential for drivers to not have the proper setup to excel is really high. The teams are going to try to set these cars up to give drivers everything they need, but some of these really, really great road-racing drivers may be hampered by some inability in their car setup. So, we’ll all learn that on the fly as the race is playing itself out. There will be a lot of mistakes, which happens when we go to these new road courses. This has happened on a couple of occasions. When NASCAR first had the ROVAL in Charlotte, those first couple of practices were really eventful for a lot of drivers having issues. When the Xfinity Series went to Indy to run the road course this year, those few practices they had were filled with mistakes and drama, so that’s how I think these races are going to be. There’s going to be a lot of guys making mistakes that knock them out of the race, you know, missed shifts, wrong gear, all types of things that might bring on some mechanical failures, sliding tires and blowing tires. Nothing’s going to surprise me.
Steve Letarte: From a crew chief standpoint, I have anxiety. We’ve seen the ROVAL, which is a combination of slow areas and fast areas, but that’s on a whole other level, because you go to Daytona and I expect the speeds to be well over 185 or 190 miles an hour. Then the banking at Daytona is so drastically steep that the loads on the car are crazy. I think if I’m a crew chief heading into this weekend, you heard everything Dale said about the challenges the drivers are going to have, my job as a crew chief is going to be relatively conservative and giving my driver a chance to learn the track and figure out what we need after Stage 1. Then have a good plan of adjustability because anybody who thinks they’re going to hit bulls-eye, is going to be mistaken. So more than anything, just keep your car on the track both with the setup and with your strategy.
AA: That’s what I’m hearing from a lot of teams and drivers this week is take it slow at first, and then figure it out, but how would you approach the weekend if you’re one of these guys on the playoff bubble right now, like Jimmie Johnson or Erik Jones? They need those stage points and wins, so does the strategy change?
SL: I think the only way you make the playoffs is on the offense. I think trying to defense your way into the playoffs, you might check the box and make it, but you’ll have no momentum when you get there. It’s like a team in a stick-and-ball sport that starts with a great regular season, then fades into the playoffs. You just can’t turn that around in the postseason. I think it’s the same in NASCAR. So if I’m the No. 48 or the No. 20 or the No. 24, I am making my competitors uncomfortable. I’m very aggressive with my strategy and with trying to gain points on those stages. It’s new now, but by the final stage of Daytona, the new will be gone and these drivers will be back to full-on aggression to try to race for a trophy. So I’m going to try and take advantage of the conservative start and try to score some points early. I’m a big believer in offense, offense, offense. Defense just is not a great way to race. I would rather miss the playoffs trying to make it then trickle into the playoffs kind of on fumes.
DJ: I feel the same. I like that coming from my crew chief. I think there are different compartments that need to be conservative and other compartments that need to be aggressive. If I was driving, I would go to Steve during the week and I say, ‘Hey, I want you to be aggressive with how you put the car out on the racetrack and set the car up. I want you to take all the knowledge from the engineers, so we can really push the envelope here and get a fast race car.’ Then as a driver, I can decide while I’m driving when to be aggressive or when to be conservative. There’s a time for both. Like Steve said, keep the car on the racetrack. Don’t make a mistake early to take yourself out or get behind. I feel like with the race cars you always have to be pushing, pushing, pushing, because, yeah, I think if you’re conservative with the setup and take a car there that’s safe, you might not actually make the points. You might just flat get outrun. You might give a driver a car that he can’t make go fast and end up missing by a scant few points. That would be pretty disappointing.
AA: Chase Elliott and Christopher Bell said they’ll be practicing on the sim rig to prepare this week. I know you’ve done a lot of iRacing, Dale Jr. How much do you think that’s going to help at Daytona?
DJ: It is better than nothing. I promise you. The technology today, and the manufacturer rigs or the sim rig you might have at your own house, the technology is so good. Jimmie Johnson was doing a two-day test at Road Atlanta and he needed to leave the second day, so they asked me to go instead. I’ve never been around that racetrack, so while Jimmie was there for his first day, I was at home on my iRacing rig driving Road Atlanta for about four hours. And when I got there the next day to fill in for Jimmie, I hit the racetrack and I was right up to speed. I got out of the car and one of the lead engineers comes over to me and says, ‘All right, when did you run here? Because you’ve obviously been on this racetrack before.’ And I said, ‘Nope. The only thing I’ve ever done was some iRacing yesterday.’ They couldn’t believe it. And if I hadn’t had iRacing, the team would’ve had to have waited on me for at least two hours to get up to speed. So I’m telling you, if I was racing in this race, I know for a fact that if I spend enough time on iRacing, it’s going to cut that learning curve in more than half. I’ll be able to hit that track pretty confident about how far I can push the car into the first corner. If I didn’t have that sim rig, I would be lifting hundreds of feet earlier and it would take me at least 10 laps to get where I need to be. You don’t have that luxury out there when the race starts.
AA: Let’s circle back to Michigan last weekend. Did you like that shorter race format?
SL: I think this year has obviously been a major challenge for everyone, but I think if we want to look for any sort of positives, this year has forced NASCAR to put everything on the table. That includes doubleheader weekends and race length. While I love the fact that we have the Coke 600 that takes over four hours and I hope it never goes away since it’s a specific test for man and machine, and the Daytona 500 and Southern 500, what I learned at Michigan is that they all don’t have to be four-hour events. We had a pair of basically two-and-a-half-hour races that I thought were captivating. I thought the races were intense. I saw the intensity out of the drivers. They knew that the stages were shorter. What I really hope is when I see the next schedule, as a fan, is a mix. I think variety is key. That way fans can find historic tracks they want to go to, marquee events if they like longer events or shorter races. I think the doubleheader weekends are an absolute success.
DJ: I feel the same way about that. I think if you’re going to have those shorter races, putting them together makes even more sense. Instead of going to Dover, for example, and running a 400-lap race, let’s go there and run two, 200-lap races on Saturday and Sunday. I think shortening the race really raises the intensity from the drivers since they know they have to go from the first lap. So, I liked that. I think that the pandemic and the limitations it’s put on how we can do things state-to-state has really been a challenge to NASCAR. They’ve done an amazing job to be able to put this season together. From a fan standpoint, I’ve been very proud of that. And with the procedural changes, the no practice and qualifying, it’s forced us to look at ourselves in a unique way and no one’s going to be surprised if NASCAR continues to take some of the things they’ve learned this season into the future.
AA: There have been so many changes this season: No practice and qualifying, the choose rule, midweek races, doubleheaders. What do you want to see stick?
DJ: I think they will limit the amount of practice that teams get. I think once we can get back to having fans at the track and having a longer race weekend, I don’t expect us to ever go to a racetrack with zero practice, zero qualifying. I think that’s only COVID and once we can get beyond this virus, we’ll have some practice back, but I think NASCAR will limit it. We won’t have five hours or whatever. It may be a little shorter. I hope the choose rule works because it seems like it puts more responsibility into the drivers’ hands, and when they’re responsible for something like a restart or maintaining position, or being aggressive to gain position, it makes the races more entertaining. Anytime we can stretch the drivers and make the situation more challenging, it’s more entertaining. The doubleheaders are great. Shorter races for me are good if it’s a doubleheader. I don’t think they should shorten the races just to be shortening them for intensity purposes. The weekday races, I don’t know. The drivers, the industry that travels from the start of the season to the end would love to see the season be shorter. The only way to do that is to boost some races into the middle of the week, but I can take that or leave it.
SL: I think Dale’s right. I think the calendar itself, as far as racing from early February to early November, is taxing on the schedule. More importantly, I think it’s almost too long for a fan. What I love about sports is when they go away, I wish there were more and when they’re ready to come back, I’m so excited they’ve returned. Jury’s out on midweek races, but I think the doubleheader is an opportunity to shorten that calendar. The other big one that some of us forgot about is the cross pollination of sanctioning bodies. We had an IndyCar and NASCAR together in Indianapolis. I thought that was amazing. There were always whispers to try to get it done. In the COVID world, we got it done. So if we can do it in 2020, surely we can do it in the years to come. I think in the end, the race fan is the winner and that’s what we’re talking about is. Someone who loves racing doesn’t have to choose between IndyCar and NASCAR, NHRA, dirt racing, whatever it is. I think the more promoters can be creative by stacking a weekend and encouraging fans to come and enjoy a whole weekend worth of racing, that’s a great ticket in my mind.
AA: Who do you guys kind of want to see for the sport in that No. 48 car after Jimmie leaves?
SL: *Laughs* Well, that’s a loaded question. Jimmie Johnson’s done so much for NASCAR, I think it’s unfair to put any driver in that car because it’s good for the sport or good for NASCAR. I think the answer needs to be what’s best for Rick Hendrick, Hendrick Motorsports or the 48 team? Erik Jones is available. When I look at Erik Jones’ resume, it looks so much like Joey Logano’s when he left Joe Gibbs Racing. While Eric is a bit older, they have roughly the same amount of top-10s, so I feel that his lack of wins at Gibbs does not concern me at all. I think that he has a tremendous amount of talent. I think Erik Jones is a wonderful candidate. But I’ll go on record to say there are other drivers out there who have impressed me. John Hunter Nemechek has impressed me. I didn’t expect that car to run that well. Corey LaJoie runs better than I think that car should run. I think Erik Jones is the most logical fit, but just cause it’s the most logical fit doesn’t mean it’s easy to make happen.
DJ: I agree. While Steve focused a lot on performance of the drivers, which is critical, I mean, you’ve gotta have an opportunity to win with the guy you put in the seat. You also gotta look for the guys who can deliver outside the race car, somebody who’s charismatic and eager to go do the work that needs to be done for their partners and can maybe transcend that bubble of NASCAR and can get into some mainstream media and is comfortable in that space. One of the guys I like a lot is Matt DiBenedetto. I think that he’s an extremely talented driver and he also has a ‘go-get-it’ mentality when it comes to marketing and branding himself, telling his own story and so forth. He’s not a guy who looks at all of that as work. Some drivers really just don’t really seem to care about sharing who they are and opening themselves up to the fans. So I think while Steve’s right about the performance side of things, you’ve also got to look at the guys out there who are going to be fun to engage with. I think that’s as important now as it’s ever been.