Steve Letarte of NBC Sports is preparing for Sunday’s telecast of the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race from Phoenix Raceway. He will be in the booth along with lead announcer Rick Allen and former drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton.
It’s the culmination of a long season of racing in the stock car series.
The NASCAR Playoffs were once dominated by Jimmie Johnson when he raced at Hendrick Motorsports. From 2006 to 2010, Johnson won five straight Cup titles. The legendary driver won his sixth championship in 2013. Three years later, he became just the third seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion joining “The King” Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
Although Johnson’s crew chief was Chad Knaus, Letarte served as crew chief on Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet from 2005 to 2010. Letarte moved over to Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet beginning in 2011 through the 2014 season, when Letarte moved off the pit box to work for NBC Sports.
Letarte never served as Johnson’s crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports but was part of the overall team that is the most successful in NASCAR history.
Johnson retired from NASCAR competition following the 2020 season and began a new career in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES as the driver of the No. 48 Carvana/The American Legion Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.
NBC Sports televises both the NASCAR Cup Series and NTT INDYCAR SERIES. At this year’s 105th Indianapolis 500, Letarte and Johnson were part of the NBC telecast working on the NBC Pit Box during the race. Johnson did not compete on the oval tracks in INDYCAR in 2020 but is seriously considering a run in the 106th Indy 500 next May.
Letarte believes that Johnson’s attempt to switch gears in his racing career is a great example of following his dream. “What Jimmie is doing, in my opinion, it’s a great example for his daughters, my son, my daughter, the people out there in the world that you can do things and you don’t have to be the best at them, and hard works pays off,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the world thinks of you. In today’s world of social media and glitz and glamour and make-believe lifestyles, I find it refreshing that a guy that could have driven off into the NASCAR sunset as a seven-time champion and as one of the best to have ever raced is taking a chance. He is willing to be vulnerable and step into another top-tier racing series and struggle, continue to struggle, not hide from it, answer all the questions. I enjoyed my time working with him on the pit box for the Indy 500.
“To the guys that are fortunate to know Jimmie … that is who Jimmie is. He has a huge fan base. We want to see him succeed. It’s also a tip-of-the-cap to INDYCAR, just how difficult that series is.”
Johnson had plenty to learn and overcome during his rookie season in INDYCAR. But over the final two months of the season, Johnson showed progressive and significant improvement in each successive race.
Turning him loose in an Indy car on the ovals could be a chance for race fans to see what Johnson is capable of. Much of his NASCAR success came on the oval tracks on the schedule.
“Zero doubt,” Letarte said. “Even if you look at his NASCAR career, he was a spectacular driver, but I don’t know if you would put him in your top three road course racers. When he gets to the ovals, it will be much more familiar ground in an unfamiliar car.
“I’m like a fan. I’m excited to see it. I wish him all the best. I hope he goes there and has a dominating pace and can win at the INDYCAR level. You have to still do it. Just because somebody wants to do it doesn’t mean you can. It’s going to fun to watch. I’m excited to see it.”
Working together at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this past May, Letarte was impressed at how much the other INDYCAR competitors respected Johnson. And with sponsors Carvana and The American Legion bringing new fans to INDYCAR, television ratings and on-site attendance showed improvement in 2021.
“I was fortunate to be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for my first Indy 500 and Jimmie’s first Indy 500,” Letarte said. “We covered it together back in May, and it didn’t take long walking through the paddock area with Jimmie to realize the mutual respect the competitors have for him.
“That’s the key. He has come in here and earned their respect by doing it the right way. Trying to find his way, trying to stay out of the way when he is off pace, doing all the right things. I think it is spectacular for Jimmie. It’s spectacular for INDYCAR. I think it has a huge value.
“The more these series find the opportunity to allow stars like Jimmie to cross over, it’s going to help all of them.”
During his time at Hendrick Motorsports as a crew chief, Gordon was sponsored by AARP and its “Drive to End Hunger” program. This year in INDYCAR, Johnson began a relationship with The American Legion and its veteran suicide prevention initiative.
“Any time a sports star in any sport doesn’t worry about how great an athlete they are but takes their platform to a much more important topic, it just proves how important sports are for the country, and to have great leaders like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson,” Letarte said. “That’s invaluable. It makes guys like me who had a miniscule career compared to guys like that very proud to be associated with guys like that for what they do.
“The American Legion guys love him. That’s great. It’s great to have The American Legion follow him.”