INSIGHT: Letarte on how Johnson ‘redefined the era’

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INSIGHT: Letarte on how Johnson ‘redefined the era’

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Letarte on how Johnson ‘redefined the era’

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This is the first of a series of stories reflecting on Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR success from those who competed against him or with him at Hendrick Motorsports. Ironically, this project was planned before Johnson announced he was returning to stock car racing on a limited basis with an ownership stake in Petty GMS but now seems all the timelier as a reminder of how good the seven-time champion was.

Steve Letarte’s response is humorous, but it comes to mind when asked to recall what it was like to try and beat Jimmie Johnson with the same equipment at Hendrick Motorsports.

“I jokingly tell him every time I see him that he forced me to work in television,” says Letarte, who has been an NBC Sports analyst since 2015 after leaving Hendrick Motorsports. “I think about golf because I’m a big golf fan. Think about Phil Mickelson. As great of a career as he had, what could it have been? What could it have been without Tiger Woods taking every air out of it?

“Well, go back to Jimmie Johnson and look at who ran second to him in all his championships. It’s like a who’s who.”

For Letarte, drivers who finished second or even third to Johnson is a Hall of Fame type list. The ones that were beaten repeatedly by Johnson are just as impressive as what Johnson was doing.

Letarte would know because he’s on that list. Working with Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion, the pair finished second to Johnson in the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings in 2007 after a furious battle in the season’s final weeks. They finished third to Johnson in 2009 when Johnson picked up his fourth consecutive championship.

“It seems very easy to take any sports figure and find a stat that argues the alternative, but there are a few that break through that, and you just can’t get to,” Letarte says. “The Michael Jordans, perhaps Kobe or Tiger. Jimmie Johnson is kind of that guy in NASCAR. I challenge any stat person to find anything factual to try to break down what he built up. Man, it’s hard to do.”

In his nine full years as a crew chief – 2006 through 2014 – Letarte accomplished plenty, first working with Gordon and then Dale Earnhardt Jr. While his drivers never beat Johnson for a championship, Letarte won 15 races, including a Daytona 500 in his final season.

Not only was Letarte a Hendrick teammate, but he was housed in the same building as Johnson’s No. 48 team and worked very closely with Johnson’s longtime crew chief Chad Knaus.

Gordon made it clear during his Hall of Fame career that Johnson was his biggest rival and never shied away from those wondering how many more championships he’d have won if not for Johnson. In 2010, the Gordon/Johnson rivalry played out publicly when notably at Texas in the spring, Gordon said Johnson was “testing my patience” after a move Gordon didn’t like on the racetrack.

Texas in Spring 2010 was a tense time for Johnson (left) and Gordon (right). Motorsport Images

At the same track later that year, after Gordon wrecked out, Knaus swapped out Johnson’s pit crew with Gordon’s. Gordon and Letarte finished ninth in the championship standings, while Johnson won his fifth straight.

Of his 15 wins, only three came with Letarte and his driver getting the better of Johnson. There were both events at Talladega Superspeedway in 2007 with Gordon and then at Texas in 2009, also with Gordon.

On the other hand, Letarte was second to Johnson in a race finish four times with Gordon (2004 Charlotte; 2007 Las Vegas and Martinsville; 2009 Fontana) and once with Earnhardt Jr. (2016 Atlanta).

Letarte lightly chuckles and says, “it’s funny,” thinking about Johnson.

“I was at Hendrick Motorsports long before Jimmie got there, and when Jeff Gordon got us together in a room and talked about him bringing Jimmie on board, no one in that room that I know of had any idea how unbelievable that driver was going to be,” Letarte says. “He just hasn’t shown anything that I saw in the Xfinity [series] races on Saturday that made him be this sought-after talent. But Jeff was in a race with him, and it was so clear to him how talented [Johnson] was. It was just one more example of how the drivers on the racetrack see so much more than us.

“Then Jimmie came in and it became clear right away how unbelievably talented he was and how driven he was. And much like everyone, I feel like Dale [Earnhardt] Sr. set the standard, and then Jeff Gordon changed the approach, I think Jimmie Johnson came in and changed the approach again and he kind of redefined the era of the sport.”

Johnson’s work ethic and how that translated to his success came up repeatedly in interviews for this project. Being a teammate, Letarte was one of those who got to see it firsthand.

Letarte mentions a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway but doesn’t recall the year. He was still the crew chief for Gordon and says it was during the continual battle the two teams were having.

“I’ll never forget, the team met at, say, 6 or 6:30 to go to the racetrack at 7, and when we pulled out of the hotel to go to the racetrack, Jimmie Johnson was jogging back into the parking lot from his morning run,” Letarte says. “It wasn’t intentional, he was just out for a run, but there is no way as a competitor you don’t see that and think to yourself, like, holy crap, what are we up against?

“He balanced [things] on and off the racetrack. He balanced his emotions with Chad. He balanced his friendships in the garage with his competitors. He found a way to be successful and it’s so easy to look back and look at the track lineup and how it was this way and that way, but the simple fact is, there are so many ways for things to go wrong. There are so many mechanical gremlins, flat tires, bad pit calls, bad restarts, and mistakes by a driver.

Letarte (right) worked alongside Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus (left) for a number of years. Motorsport Images

“To avoid those for such a span of time and be a champion year after year after year, I don’t think I appreciated it enough when I was trying to beat him, sharing a building with him and Chad, but the farther and farther we get away from those accomplishments, just the more mind-boggling it really is.”

There is no easy answer for why Johnson was as good as he was for so long. It was a combination of everything that came together perfectly. Letarte believes something he’s learned about life is the things people love the most or what’s captivating are what can’t be reproduced or perfected into one recipe to use over and over.

“You can’t recreate moments,” Letarte says. “Movies are great, but there’s a script. Reality TV has a script. But not live sports. Live sports are this last leg of a true living, breathing thing. It touches people at a level of connection that most things can’t, and it can be both ways. When your team isn’t winning, it’s the most heartbreaking thing in the world, and when your team is winning, it’s the most jubilation you can ever experience.

“That goes even more when you get to see the person himself doing it. Johnson was in a zone – we talk about the zone – his zone lasted years. His zone wasn’t a good half of football or nine holes of golf. It was years.

“It’s kind of like Tiger Woods; when you go back and bring his stats up, you almost don’t believe they’re real. You don’t believe how many weeks he could have been No. 1. And I think that’s Jimmie Johnson.

“The farther and farther we get away from Jimmie Johnson’s career, the more and more and more we should be impressed with what he’s accomplished.”

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