Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the second hottest driver on the Cup circuit right now, with top-10 finishes in all four of the races that have been held this season. Some pundits predicted that Earnhardt would do better with this new generation car than he did with the previous incarnation of Cup cars. Other people might just point to the man on top of his pit box. Earnhardt is starting his third season with Steve Letarte as his crew chief and the two seem to be hitting their stride as they begin the 2013 season. Letarte gave Frontstretch a few minutes to look back at Bristol and ahead to California.
Mike Neff: Dale made some contact with the wall early on in the race at Bristol. He fell back for the remainder of that run but rebounded rather quickly after the next pit stop and ended up with his fourth top 10 of the season. Did the contact damage the car requiring adjustments to correct it or was it just cosmetic damage?
Steve Letarte: It barely caused any cosmetic damage at all. There really wasn’t any damage to the car at all. I think we fell back a little in the middle of the race because we got a little behind on adjustments for the track conditions and got the car a little too tight. I don’t think any of it came from damage to the car at all.
Neff: This was the first race at Bristol with the new additional camber in the rear end. Did that play a factor in the setup of the cars for the race? It would seem like it would due to the fact that it is a short track.
Letarte: I think the rear camber probably helped secure up everyone’s entry a little bit. I didn’t hear near as much loose in as we normally hear at Bristol. There was definitely some more rear grip. I think that was a gain that allowed guys to be more competitive in the bottom groove. It made for a better race overall. Bristol is very unique though. We’ll have to see how it is when we go to Martinsville and Richmond and some other places but I thought, so far, it really ran pretty well.
Neff: One last Bristol question. We saw some blown tires from some guys who took two tires vs. four. Did you like that people had to conserve their tires a little if they took two tires or would you rather see harder tires that don’t wear as much?
Letarte: I am of the opinion that the tire failures had nothing to do with two or four tires. I don’t think they had anything to do with the wear on the tires or laps on the tires. I think they were separate issues. I don’t really care, I am open to whatever. It doesn’t bother me one way or the other. If you have a tire that wears out there isn’t a lot of pit strategy, you put on four tires every time. If you have tires that last it adds some more pit strategy. I am really indifferent. I have called both styles of races and I don’t really have a specific choice that I would take over the other.
Neff: Las Vegas was our first intermediate track race with the new car. Did you learn anything that you are going to carry over to Fontana?
Letarte: We learned a little bit. Vegas is a very rough race track but so is Fontana. We feel like we made some gains in Vegas on our cars. We learned how they run in traffic and some adjustments we can make there. I think we learned a little but Fontana is very unique. It is much flatter than Vegas, it is faster on the straightaways, the corners seem to be a lot slicker with a lot less grip. Fontana is such a unique race track that not a lot is going to be carried over from Vegas.
Neff: You mentioned handling in traffic. The new car has more downforce on the nose than the old car did. Was there much you learned in Vegas pertaining to aero conditions behind other cars with the new car?
Letarte: We learned a lot but there isn’t a whole lot I can do to help it. We’ve learned how important clean air still is. We know what all you need to do to make your car handle in traffic but Vegas is a unique race track with multiple grooves. Granted, Fontana is multiple grooves as well so hopefully we’ll see the track widen out and we’ll be able to run all of the grooves. As a crew chief there is only so much you can do, the laws of physics are still the laws of physics. Fluid dynamics is fluid dynamics. When you have a car this size running 200 miles per hour the wake behind it is pretty big. No matter what you do you’re going to have less air behind someone than you will have in front of them.
Neff: Auto Club Speedway can lend itself to fuel mileage races sometimes. Have there been any tweaks to your EFI system to try and optimize your fuel mileage?
Letarte: Every race we go to, in my opinion, is a fuel mileage race. There isn’t anything that we do for Fontana that we don’t do at Bristol and Martinsville and Texas and Las Vegas and Daytona. I think the competition is so tough and the depth of the field is so tough that, every race track we go to, fuel mileage is a major contributor to who can have the best pit strategy and who can win the race. We are always, at every race track, working on fuel mileage as hard as possible.
Neff: Have there been any technical bulletins or rule changes that have come out since Daytona?
Letarte: I haven’t seen any yet. There have been some tweaks as to how the cars are inspected. I wouldn’t call them rules changes. It is more things that we have learned, since the season started, about how they are going to inspect the rules we currently have. I wouldn’t say there have been any changes yet.
Neff: Are the tires that we’re running at Fontana the same as last year?
Letarte: Yes, the tires we’re running this year are the same as last year.
Neff: Dale won at Michigan last year and it is a similar track to California. Does that give you any more confidence going into Fontana this year?
Letarte: Due to the repave at Michigan they might as well be one on Mars and one on Venus. They are totally different tracks. What we see now is tracks are more consistent due to pavement types more than track styles. I think this will be a perfect example where Fontana will be nothing like a freshly paved Michigan. I think it will be more like an old Kansas or perhaps a Texas. It really comes down to roughness and the actual pavement style that makes the most difference.
Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs racing have won three of the four races this season and looked like the dominant teams, while Brad Keselowski has been the most consistent performer through the first four races. As the series heads back to the West Coast the drivers from Hendrick Motorsports, including LeTarte’s driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., have to be favorites for another victory. If Earnhardt can turn this hot start into a win or two before the midway point of the season, he’ll have himself locked into the Chase with plenty of time to experiment for the title run.
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