Auto Racing / Sports

Earnhardt, Letarte send a message with Daytona 500 win

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- While celebrating his Daytona 500 win in victory lane on Sunday night, Dale Earnhardt Jr. affixed a new decal above the driver's side door on his No. 88 Chevrolet.

After each Sprint Cup race, the winning car will receive a decal of a checkered flag above the word "WINNER," indicating the victor has earned a spot in NASCAR's new 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup format.

Let that be a warning to the rest of the field.

"We're going for the jugular this year," Earnhardt proclaimed in the aftermath of the second Daytona 500 victory of his career and the final 500 for his crew chief, Steve Letarte.

Letarte, who guided Earnhardt to a fifth-place finish in the Chase last season, is leaving Hendrick Motorsports at the end of the season for an analyst's position with NBC Sports, which will televise Sprint Cup races starting in 2015.

And Earnhardt can't think of a better way for Letarte to go out than by their teaming up for their first Sprint Cup championship.

Earnhardt, 39, used an analogy from his boyhood to describe the approach he and Letarte will take now that a Chase spot virtually has been clinched one week into the season.

"You know, when you're a kid, especially when you're growing up around racing, me and all my buddies would go to pay to ride the go-kart ride, whatever racetrack we were at," Earnhardt said. "We'd get a hundred bucks from daddy and go ride the go-karts till the wheels fell off, till we ran out of money.

"On that last ride, you let it all hang out. You didn't care if you got kicked off. If you didn't get kicked off, something was wrong, on the last ride.

"This is Steve's last ride. He's got a little racing left in him, I think he's going to try to get it all out. That's good for me. I'm fortunate to be on the ride with him."

Having a win in their back pocket will enable Earnhardt and Letarte to take chances they may not have tried in old-fashioned points racing.

"Now, it's easy to say you can run 20th and go for a win," Letarte said, "where if you're racing for the points, you can't afford to give up 20 points. When they come out with this points system, we talked about it a lot. ... I don't think it changes much before you win. I don't think anybody can take any bigger chances we already take to try to win.

"Once you have won one, it gives you an opportunity to really take borderline ridiculous chances. If there is a slim chance, that's really all the chance you need. We've been very fortunate to have good runs and there's been a lot of seconds, close calls. ... Those opportunities are going to come around more often now."

Letarte, 34 and a father of two young children, said his decision to trade his Hendrick Motorsports headset for an NBC microphone was so he can spend more time with his family.

That's what made winning the Daytona 500 so important to the No. 88 team.

"It's Daytona," said Letarte, who has been Earnhardt's crew chief since 2011 and was Jeff Gordon's chief during 2006-10. "It's a place I've been coming my whole life, 20 years in the sport. I remember before that coming with my dad, watching him run around here

"When we sat in the drivers meeting (on Sunday), when they introduced the guys who were in the Hall of Fame, all the great drivers there, they don't say how many times they won Martinsville, Bristol, Charlotte. They say, 'This is the five-time Sprint Cup Champion ... or a three-time Daytona 500 champion.' "

Now, Letarte and Earnhardt are in position to start thinking about their first Sprint Cup championship.

"Making the Chase is important," said Earnhardt, who turns 40 in October. "I didn't anticipate having to put that to bed so quickly. We'll go ahead and concentrate on winning more races. I expect that we're going to have some great race cars and some great opportunities to win.

"I know that we run our guts out every week. Steve and the guys give it all they got. I give it all I got. We did that last year and didn't win any races. We weren't trying to be consistent. We weren't trying to just gather up points. We want to win so bad because we know how important that is for our fans, how important that is to the sport, how big it would be for all the effort Rick (Hendrick) has put into it.

"Our confidence couldn't be higher. Confidence is a great thing. When you have the most, you're in perfect situations to have some good things happen, so hopefully we can seize the moment."

(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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