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Letarte gets Earnhardt in a groove in final season

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It took Steve Letarte 51 races to return Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Victory Lane, where the duo celebrated at Michigan in 2012 a turning point in their pairing.

Letarte, a career Hendrick Motorsports employee, had been tasked with rebuilding the confidence in NASCAR’s most popular driver and teaching him how to win again. The confidence part wasn’t difficult – it took discipline, raised expectations and a schedule Earnhardt was expected to follow.

The winning? Well, it didn’t come as often as driver and crew chief would like.

Earnhardt didn’t win again in 2012 or all of 2013. His next victory didn’t come to this year, the season-opening Daytona 500. But, he added a second win last Sunday at Pocono, and now heads his weekend back to Michigan International Speedway, site of his first victory with Letarte two years ago, in the midst of his first multi-win season in a decade.

The irony is that the success is finally coming as he and Letarte are set to split.

Letarte announced in January this year would be his last with Hendrick Motorsports and as Earnhardt’s crew chief. He’s moving into an analyst role with NBC and will be in the television booth when the network takes over a portion of the NASCAR schedule next year.

Letarte, despite the success he’s finally achieving with Earnhardt, is at peace with the decision.

“You guys only get to see the great stuff, which is a win at Daytona and a win (at Pocono),” he said. “But Saturday of Kansas, my little girl had her first communion and I was in Kansas. When moments like that happen it reaffirms why I made my decision.”

Letarte was 15 when he became a part-time employee with Hendrick Motorsports in 1995. In the 20 seasons since, he progressed through the organization and became one of the team’s veteran crew chiefs. He also got married and had two children, but the demands of his job prevented him from being the husband and father he wanted to be.

“This is my life, this is how I was raised, but I chose … to have a family, and when I made that decision, that was not a casual decision, that was a decision for forever,” he said. “As much as I love my job, they have to come first.”

Earnhardt understands that Letarte must move on for his own personal reasons, and he’s genuinely happy for his crew chief – “he’s going to be able to spend a ton of time with his kids, play as much golf as he wants to play. He’s getting a steal compared to what he’s doing right now.”

But he didn’t feel that way last November when Letarte told him after the season finale that he was leaving the team at the end of 2014.

“I broke down,” Earnhardt admitted. “It was the hardest thing to have to hear, but at the same time, I thought, `Well, we’ve got one year together, and as much fun as we have and as good a friends as we are, I feel lucky to have one more year.'”

So their goal is to put together the strongest season possible, to win races and make a run at the Sprint Cup title.

“It would be very disappointing and sad if this was his last year and we struggled,” Earnhardt said. “But we’ve won two races, and I won my first Pocono race, he won his first Daytona 500. It seems a bit storybook, and we’re having a real thrill.”

NO TIME TO PARTY: Ed Carpenter got very little time to celebrate following his IndyCar Series victory at Texas last Saturday night. The owner/driver returned to Indianapolis early Sunday morning, and was back to work a day later.

Carpenter and his Ed Carpenter Racing crew were on the road first thing Monday, headed to Iowa Speedway for the first of three test sessions in nine days. The team was also scheduled to test at Milwaukee and Pocono.

“I guess there is no rest for us right now,” said Carpenter, who led 90 laps at Texas in grabbing his first win of the season. “We need to use this break to get ready for the next oval races. It’s tough on the whole team after more than a month of work. But that is why we love to go racing.”

Carpenter turned over his car this season to Mike Conway for races on road and street courses. Conway took the team to Victory Lane in April at Long Beach, and Carpenter made his season debut as driver at Indianapolis, where he won the pole for the Indy 500.

A crash ended his race early, but he rebounded two weeks later to score his first career victory at Texas.

LE MANS COVERAGE: Bob Varsha will lead Fox Sports coverage of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of10 on-air personalities and analysts assigned by the network to the race.

Varsha, a veteran race broadcaster, will be host and play-by-play announcer when coverage of the world’s most famous sports car endurance race begins Saturday morning. Brian Till will take over for Varsha when the on-air teams rotate in multi-hour segments in similar fashion to the multi-driver entries.

Analysis will be provided by Calvin Fish, Dorsey Schroeder, Tommy Kendall and Darren Law. Fox Sports has tabbed Justin Bell, Jamie Howe, Andrew Marriott and Greg Creamer to report.

“Some events need no hype whatsoever; think The Masters, the Kentucky Derby, the Tour de France,” said Varsha. “Le Mans is one of those. Dale Earnhardt once told me it was the one race he wanted to do outside of NASCAR, and I’m sure Mario Andretti would tell you that, for all he achieved, Le Mans was the one that got away. That’s how the drivers see it. It’s that big a challenge, and that rewarding.”

MUSTANG TO PACE FIELD: Ford will continue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Mustang this weekend when the iconic pony car makes its debut as an official pace car in Sunday’s race at Michigan.

The field will be led to the green flag by a 2015 Mustang GT fastback driven by Joe Hinrichs, Ford Motor Co. president of The Americas.

“With its proximity to the Motor City, Michigan International Speedway is a showcase for the auto industry,” said Chantel Lenard, Ford’s director of U.S. marketing. “To have Mustang, a brand born of racing, in this special anniversary year, leading some of the world’s best drivers to the green flag, is special.”

Built in Flat Rock, Michigan, the 2015 Mustang is all-new from the ground up. The sixth-generation, rear-wheel-drive car has the long hood and short rear decklid proportions of its most iconic predecessors, as well as a low, wide stance.

SPIRIT AWARD: Lynda Petty, the late wife of seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty, was named the first quarter recipient of the National Motorsports Press Association’s Spirit Award.

Petty was one of the founding members of the Racing Wives Auxiliary, a charitable organization that provided assistance to those in need within the racing community. The group is now known as the Women’s Auxiliary of Motorsports, and seeks to enrich the lives of women, children and families through various education and wellness programs.

Petty died in March at 72 after a long illness.

The NMPA Spirit Award is designed to recognize character and achievement in the face of adversity, sportsmanship and contributions to motorsports. Each year, quarterly winners are chosen, and an overall winner is selected by a vote of the NMPA membership.

Also, The Petty Family Foundation this week announced it will use the numerous donations made in Petty’s memory to contribute to four organizations.

THEY SAID IT: “Some of the stuff the haters say is the funniest stuff. The real short ones, like `You suck,’ those are the best ones. I just favorite them and block them,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., who joined Twitter in February, on how he handles hateful tweets.