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Letarte: Let me tell you about the Jeff Gordon I know

SHOWTIME Southern 500

DARLINGTON, SC - MAY 08: Jeff Gordon (R), driver of the #24 DuPont / National Guard Facebook Chevrolet and his crew chief Steve Letarte stand on the grid prior to the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series SHOWTIME Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on May 8, 2010 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)

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When I told my son Tyler that I would no longer be Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, he cried. So did my daughter Ashlyn.

Tyler was 7 then in 2010 and Ashlyn was 5. My work identity to them was tied to Jeff. Tyler and Ashlyn cheered the No. 24 car when they watched the races. It was all about the No. 24 car for them. Then it changed. Tyler was heartbroken.

Sometime after the change, a picture arrived for Tyler. It was from Jeff. He wrote: “I know I’m not driving your dad’s car anymore, but you will always be my buddy.’’

That’s the Jeff Gordon I know.

You’ve heard the stories, you’ve seen the examples of Jeff’s generosity throughout his magnificent Sprint Cup career, which will come to an end Sunday. For each story you’ve heard about Jeff’s kindness, there are many more that you haven’t - such as what he did for Tyler after the 2010 season.

He didn’t have to send that picture, but he did. Just like Jeff didn’t have to fly down from New York City to meet after Rick Hendrick moved me from being Jeff’s crew chief to being Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief for the 2011 season.

I was a Hendrick employee, and it was Mr. Hendrick’s decision to move me from the team I had been with since 1995 when Ray Evernham hired me to sweep the floor and do other odd jobs in the shop. I wasn’t Jeff’s employee. In fact, Jeff had told me as much when I first started as his crew chief late in the 2005 season.

His only advice was to treat him like every other member of the team. I couldn’t do it. He was still my mentor, and I still had him on a pedestal by none of his doing. I couldn’t hold him as accountable as he could have been held. If I could go back and redo 2007 when we finished second to teammate Jimmie Johnson, we win going away because Jeff didn’t get anywhere near my best as a crew chief.

When I moved to Dale’s team, that’s when I fully grasped what Jeff had told me in that first meeting. The ripples from Jeff helped Dale Jr. and I have success.

There were many other lessons I learned from Jeff that helped me when I was with Dale’s team and now in my role with NBC. Jeff’s lessons came through his actions. Not everything has gone well for Jeff in his career or his life, but he’s shown how to persevere. He taught me that there’s not a storm in the garage that isn’t going to go away.

Now, he’s on the verge of a fifth title, but he’s so big that whether he wins the championship this weekend it won’t matter. He’s already iconic. He’s already a legend and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Four championships or five won’t measure his greatness.

Instead, I see Jeff’s greatness in the message he wrote to Tyler.