JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 DUPONT CHEVROLET MONTE CARLO TALKS WITH MEDIA ABOUT NEW CREW CHIEF, STEVE LETARTE ON STEVE LETARTE REPLACING ROBBIE LOOMIS AS CREW CHIEF: "I have so much respect for Robbie. Robbie and I have been communicating about what...
JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 DUPONT CHEVROLET MONTE CARLO TALKS WITH MEDIA ABOUT NEW CREW CHIEF, STEVE LETARTE
ON STEVE LETARTE REPLACING ROBBIE LOOMIS AS CREW CHIEF:
"I have so much respect for Robbie. Robbie and I have been communicating about what his future is going to be before this season ever started. Inside, because I recognize what kind of person Robbie is -- committed, loyal, and makes decisions with his heart -- and I knew how he felt about Petty Enterprises and that he's always a part of his family and that one day, that calling might take him back over there. I've always been able to talk to him and we've always been open about it. So there were no real surprises. The reason why Steve Letarte was on top of the box with Robbie this year is because Robbie has basically had him in training. We were planning on putting Steve Letarte in as crew chief. We hoped that Robbie would stay at Hendrick in a different role and be able to utilize his talents and abilities and just continue to grow our organization. And we can certainly use somebody like Robbie to do those things. But when we had the type of season we had and Petty talked to Robbie, he came to me and told me he wasn't sure what he was going to do but that he wanted to win this championship and end things on a good note. But at soon as that didn't happen, he was the first guy to recognize that we had to work on next year. I respect the heck out of somebody who can put his ego aside and look at his future as well as the future of our organization. That's why he'll always be welcome at Hendrick Motorsports and why we support him wherever he goes. We're happy for him and for Petty Enterprises.
"And then I'm excited about Steve this weekend. The guy is from New England and has worked for our organization for a long time from the ground up. I know Rick Hendrick is extremely proud of the organization and how they've been able to grow people into these positions. You look at the crew chiefs in the Busch Series with the No. 5 and the No. 25. Those are all guys who have been in the organization for a long period of time or have started from the ground up."
HOW DO YOU PREPARE MENTALLY FOR THIS WEEKEND NOW THAT YOU'RE NOT IN THE CHASE?
"It's different. Deep down inside, I really wanted to be in that Chase. I wanted to be a part of that championship hunt. But I've got to admit, right now it's refreshing to have that pressure off and be able to revamp our team and reorganize.
"We've been missing that excitement about coming to the race track and this puts us in a position to be able to try and create that excitement and get it back for next year. That's our goal."
HOW MUCH WILL ROBBIE LOOMIS BE MISSED?
"He's going to be missed a lot. He's a team player. He's a great crew chief, but he's an all around great person. I like his style. I told Steve Letarte that he's had a chance to work under two of the best crew chiefs in the business - Ray Evernham and Robbie Loomis. They both have a way of making things work, but they do it in different ways. I told him he needs to try to learn from both those guys and blend those two qualities because you can be a tremendous crew chief just by pulling from those two guys."
IS STEVE LETARTE YOUR MAN FOR THE LONG TERM?
"He's our man. What we're doing right now is trying to figure out what tools we need to provide him -- recognizing his strengths. But we haven't had him in this position. So there are weaknesses there. So this is the time for him to work on it and for us to recognize him and provide everything we need. I think he is one of the smartest guys we've got. He might not have the engineering background like some of the engineers, but he's super smart and he's got a lot of common sense. He's going to really grow fast into this position and do a great job. I've believed in him for a long time. In January, really, the decision was already made that he was going to be the crew chief. We just wanted to get through this year and this battle for the championship and move Robbie into a position at Hendrick Motorsports as a two-time champion, not just a one-time champion."
ON STEVE LETARTE'S MANAGEMENT STYLE & SKILLS
"I think that if you look at his growth in our organization, and you look every time he's been asked to step up a position, he's exceeded our expectations. You don't always know until you put him in that position. He's a guy who has matured a lot over the years. He's been on the road a long time. He's worked with the team and with the guys and with the cars. He knows every aspect of it. I can just tell you that we wouldn't have him in this position if we didn't believe in his skills."
IF YOU'VE HAD TROUBLE WITH GETTING CARS THAT MAKE YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE THIS YEAR, AND YOU'RE GOING TO MAKE A CHANGE, IS THIS A BIG ENOUGH CHANGE?
"You're not necessarily going to see all the changes. It could just be how we go about gathering our information and just taking a little bit different approach on the set-ups or how we test. It's all little things. We've got a good organization with a lot of depth. We're not trying to go and reinvent the wheel. Some of it is just getting the chemistry and confidence back in me and the teams and everything. When the No. 5 and the No. 25 and even the No. 48 have been running as good as they have, we know it's there. It's just putting it all together. There is no blame here being put on Robbie Loomis. It's not that now, this guy (Letarte) is going to fix all that. No, it's not that at all. We recognize there are a lot of things we've got to do different. We were going to put Stevie in there anyway. He's got some new ideas that maybe were always in the back of his mind that he wanted to try. I think he communicates well with the guys and with me. Right now, during these next 10 races, it's about finding those things we're missing. If the No. 5 and the No. 25 and the No. 48 are making some set-ups work that we haven't been able to make work, we've got to figure out how to make it work. The problem is that when you're in the Chase, it's hard to go to the race track and test. You've got to put something in that you think is going to be close. We didn't go into the race thinking, 'Man, we're going to stink today.' We went into it thinking this is the best we got it in practice, let's hope that it's right. And it just wasn't. Now, we don't have to worry about points. We can just try things to get better."
IS YOUR CONFIDENCE SHAKEN?
"Well, it's certainly not at it's peak. I feel like I'm fortunate I've had a lot of success to where I know I've got what it takes to get the job done. But I also recognize that I can't make miracles happen. No one person or driver can in this garage or any garage. It takes a combination. You've got to have everything underneath you. Now, I play a very important role. That's what Steve and the team are thinking right now. What are we going to do to get Jeff comfortable so his confidence gets back so we're gathering the best information we can."
IS ONE OF THE PROBLEMS THE FACT THAT YOU DON'T WANT TO CHANGE YOUR DRIVING STYLE AND DRIVE DIFFERENTLY?
"All I can compare it to is 2000. In 2000, we struggled. The first have of the year it wasn't comfortable. We were trying set-ups that we heard other people were running and I didn't like it. I couldn't make it work.
"We started to change the bodies and started to tweak on those set-ups. And then all of a sudden, boom. We started flying toward the end of 2000 and came out in 2001 and won the championship. I don't think I can change too much. I've been driving these cars for such a long time and I'm kind of stuck in my basics. I can grow a little bit in different areas with the set-ups, but you bring a young guy in and there's no doubt. He has no idea. He has no idea the difference between a 2000-pound spring and an 800-pound spring. To him, it's just 'drive the car'. It's easier for the young guys to adapt to the new set-ups. Older guys like myself, it's going to take longer to get more comfortable. But I don't think it's something where I have to go and change the way I'm driving. I can't. This is how I get off the gas. This is how I get on the brake. This is how I get back on the gas. That's why we have to find the combination to work for us. There's a way to do it. It's just that we haven't found it yet. That's why the set-ups in the No. 5 or the No. 25 or the No. 48 are just a little bit different. It's the same thing with Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart. Tony drives just a little bit different than Bobby does and sometimes those set-ups work and sometimes they don't."
WHAT DOES STEVE LETARTE BRING TO THE TABLE THAT'S DIFFERENT FROM ROBBIE LOOMIS' APPROACH?
"Here's a guy who has been in our organization for a long time. He has worked from the ground up. He's a guy we've basically been grooming for a long period of time to be in this position. He's a very smart and talented guy who is going to surprise a lot of people. We've got to provide him with the right tools. It's easy for us to see it within the organization. I've got to step up and provide him with as much clear information as I can to make sure we're covering every single thing we possibly can. He brings a lot to the table. The only thing he doesn't have is the experience of actually calling the race, and that's why we're doing what we're doing these last 10 races."
HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO ADJUST TO NOT MAKING THE CHASE?
"We were running horribly. We didn't have the car to compete with the guys that we were battling with in the points anyway. We were just trying to salvage it and hope for the best to get anything we could out of it. You never know."
DO YOU THINK STEVE LETARTE WILL BE TAKING MORE CHANCES ON THE PIT BOX THAN ROBBIE LOOMIS
"Again, that goes back to youth. Steve is a young guy (26) and when you look at young guys and their positions, they're more willing to take risks.
"The guy you put there in that position, you've got to support him. And I support him and believe in him. There will be times when they work out and times when they don't work out. I'm going to be behind him 100 percent. I'm looking forward to the challenges it puts on me and on Steve. I really believe in the long run that it's going to pay off for us. Some of it is youth. If I didn't think that Steve was as sharp as he is, I wouldn't want that guy making those kinds of calls. That's just risky. He's going to make them with a certain thought process. I believe that."
CAN YOU HANDICAP THE CHASE?
"You've got certain guys that are running really well like the Roush cars -- the No. 97, the No. 17, the No. 16. Car-wise, those guys probably have the fastest cars. But then you've got two guys who just know how to find something more when it comes down to the Chase and get the most out of it. And that's Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. So as far as their racing abilities and guys who know how to step up in crunch time, I think that Jimmie and Tony have that edge. But in my opinion, it's going to be hard to beat those Roush cars. They're awfully good."
CAN YOU PREDICT WHO WILL RISE TO THE TOP IN THESE LAST 10 RACES?
"It's impossible. Look at what happened to Jimmie last year. He had problems early and then came back and still could have won the championship. But you can't get down like that in the beginning. Anything can happen."
WHAT ROLE ARE YOU GOING TO PLAY IN THE NO. 48 TEAM? ARE YOU GOING TO HELP JIMMIE JOHNSON WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE?
"Absolutely -- anything that I can do. Obviously, we have the open-book policy on everything we're doing car-wise and set-up wise. On the race track, I'm going to give him a lot more room than I would anyone else. We really haven't talked in detail about it, but whatever I can do to help him, we're definitely here for those guys. We've got to turn things around for ourselves, but our priority is getting that No. 48 car the championship this year."
WITH THE ABSENCE OF YOU AND DALE EARNHARDT JR., THE TV RATINGS COULD BE OFF AS MUCH AS 20 PERCENT FOR THE CHASE. DO YOU THINK THAT'S TRUE AND WILL YOUR FANS WILL STILL TUNE IN EVEN THOUGH YOU'RE NOT IN THE RUNNING?
"I don't see that as being the case. If Junior and myself are in the Chase, only because of our fan base and the media coverage that we tend to get -- especially Junior -- the ratings might be a little bit higher, but I don't think they're not going to drop. I think the fans are going to tune in for the exciting format. There is still a great fan base for the guys in there (the Chase) and it's not like me and Junior aren't still on the track. I think as long as it's an exciting race and an exciting championship, the fans are going to tune in."