By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’) (June 13, 2021)
Steve Letarte knows just how difficult setting up a car for Pocono Raceway is.
In fact, two of the trickiest parts of ‘The Tricky Triangle’ lie in the hands of the crew chief atop the pit box: getting the car to handle well through each of Pocono’s three unique turns and planning an effective fuel strategy.
Letarte mastered both parts three times, winning at Pocono in 2007 with Jeff Gordon and again in 2014 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. to sweep that year’s Pocono events.
For Letarte, the secret always laid in the preparation. That started in the shop, figuring out what setup to put in the car.
“I always looked at it real simple — that the car has to work in turn three, the driver has to find a way to get through turn two and we could compromise in turn one and that’s Pocono in a nutshell,” Letarte said. “The car has to be good in turn three leading up to the longest straightaway in NASCAR. If you’re playing defense down that straightaway, you’re going to get beat all day.”
His favorite part, though, was dissecting the plan of attack for pit road. When do you pit, and how do you do that by gaining or retaining the most track position?
“[It was] track position over anything else,” Letarte said. “And I know that sounds silly, but it’s so easy to get caught up in the race, the emotion of the race, and continue to try and make your car better. And the simple fact is, your odds are going to be the best if you can work your way to the front. And we did that under basically any scenario and at all costs.
“And it didn’t always work. I don’t know how many races I’ve run at Pocono, but we only won three, which means we lost way more than three. So you can gamble and have it come up snake eyes and have it not work. But I think you have to not have any fear is the point. You have to be willing to roll the dice.”
Letarte’s three wins at Pocono are the most victories at any one track that Letarte visited as a NASCAR Cup Series crew chief.
“It can be the best race of the year, if you hit it right,” he said. “And nothing can be more helpless because normally, the crew chiefs know they’re on the wrong side of the strategy well before the race plays out, and sitting up there knowing you hit it at the wrong time is a helpless feeling.”
The first time he nailed strategy at Pocono came in the June 2007 Pocono 500, when rain on the horizon meant the focus needed to shift toward halfway — lap 100 — instead of lap 200.
The led to Letarte making a change in strategy, bringing the No. 24 car to pit road at lap 82, 10 laps earlier than when the majority of the field was pitting. That left Gordon out front at the halfway mark.
With worn brakes, fading tires and a hard-charging Ryan Newman bearing down on him, chances of Gordon winning were slim. But the rain came just as he and Newman entered turn two on lap 104, and the caution flag flew with Newman at Gordon’s left-rear tire.
The race was called official at lap 106 and Gordon held on for the win.
“The timing couldn’t have been any better,” Letarte said. “But that’s just the perfect example of what Pocono gives is opportunity. We didn’t have a winning car that day. But you just got to keep swinging and some tracks do not give you that opportunity. If you get behind, you’re behind and you got to kind of live to fight another weekend.
“At Pocono … the storylines change. You have to just continue to attack. And that was what it was that day it was just plan A didn’t work B didn’t work. I think we were on about plan, you know, G or H or L — we are deep, deep in the alphabet to try to figure out a way to get a little bit of an advantage around the rain. …
“Basically, I’m glad it rained in that corner, because I think the next corner was a corner too late. So sometimes you just get lucky.”
Luck swung Letarte’s way again in June 2014, when Earnhardt Jr. claimed the first Pocono victory of his career.
On the final restart of the race with 12 laps to go, race leader Brad Keselowski took the outside lane and put second-place driver Earnhardt Jr. to the inside. Earnhardt fought hard to stay alongside Keselowski through Turn 1, but Keselowski pulled away.
“I remember I had given up,” Letarte said.” I felt like, ‘all right, this race is over. We’re not gonna get by him. There’s only a handful laps to go.’”
That was until Keselowski, with debris on his grille, tried to use the draft off Danica Patrick in Turn 1 to remove the debris and cool his engine with five laps to go. Patrick went high, Keselowski lost momentum, and Earnhardt blew past both of them down the Long Pond Straightaway for his first triumph at the Tricky Triangle.
The victory was fantastic — it marked the No. 88 team’s second of the year following the Daytona 500 — but Letarte knew he and Earnhardt were beat that day.
The answer? Prepare better.
“The second race was a lot of work during the week, if people don’t want to believe that,” Letarte said. ”Hours and hours and hours and hours of breaking down how far fifth place is behind the leader, 10thplace is behind the leader, 15th place is behind the leader on lap one, lap three, lap five, lap seven. So when the opportunity opened, we pitted.”
The laps led were roughly the same — 11 in June, 14 in August. But the execution by the No. 88 was flawless.
“I’ll never forget, we pitted under caution to take four tires and knowing we had to come back in like three laps for gas,” Letarte recalled. “And I told Dale on the radio, ‘Hey man, this is the race. You got to go right here.’ He made a great restart, ran two really fast laps. We took our gas only and the viral meme was made of me excited on top of the pit box that that plan worked.”
To perfection. Once Junior cleared the No. 24 of Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Letarte knew the last move had been made, ending his crew-chief career at Pocono with two wins in his last two visits.
The success stems from the shop of Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt’s June 2014 capped a remarkable feat: each different Hendrick driver won in succession from July 2012 through June 2014, with wins from Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Earnhardt, respectively.
“What you have to have going to Pocono was the fundamentals of racing, and that’s horsepower and downforce,” Letarte said. “And those take a tremendous amount of drive, a tremendous amount of hours and a tremendous amount of money. [Team owner] Mr. [Rick] Hendrick committed all three. He is in the business of racing to win. And it’s never more on display than when you go to some of those big tracks.”
Letarte, a native of Maine, was able to succeed at a track he still adores coming to as an analyst for NBC Sports. While putting on thrilling racing, it’s the atmosphere Pocono provides, he said, that makes the Tricky Triangle leap off the NASCAR schedule.
“It [is] a good reminder of what NASCAR was built on,” Letarte said. “Nothing can stay the same, and I’m not against the big corporations of owning multiple racetracks. And I understand that is required for things to move forward. But it was always great to go somewhere that felt a little different. Whether it was the spires in the grandstands, or the family in the drivers meeting, or my kids to this day still talk about the Saturday night fireworks at Pocono.”
Pocono is still a destination highlighted on Letarte’s schedule, just like it is for motorsports fans in Pennsylvania.
To see more content from our ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle’ please visit: poconoraceway.com/50