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From the start Letarte, whose father, Don, worked at HMS building chassis, peppered anyone he could corner with questions: How does this machine work? Why are you doing that to the car? How does Jeff like his car to feel through the corners? "Steve asked, like, 900 questions a day," recalls Robbie Loomis, who succeeded Evernham as Gordon's crew chief from 2000 to '05. "We drove to the racetrack together, and he never, ever stopped with the questions."
Letarte quickly worked his way up the job ladder: After being a gofer in the shop for two years, he became the tire specialist and then a mechanic. In February 2002, at the age of 22, he was promoted to car chief on Gordon's team--the second-in-command. Though baby-faced, Letarte was uncommonly mature. He already owned a few commercial real estate properties. He taught Loomis, who was 15 years his senior, how to appreciate fine wine and after-dinner cigars. But most important, he was developing a very adult rapport with Gordon. The car chief works closely with the driver to go over the changes being made to the car's setup and to evaluate how effective they are in actual driving conditions. "As a young guy Steve could dissect what I was saying and get a mental picture of what was happening in the car," says Gordon. "I won a lot of races with Ray Evernham"--47, to be precise--"but I've never been around anyone who can get on the same page with me as fast as Steve."
In September 2005, just days after Gordon failed to qualify for the 10-driver field in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, team owner Rick Hendrick decided on a bold personnel move: He made Letarte, at 26, the second-youngest crew chief in the 21-year-history of Hendrick Motorsports. A few weeks after ascending to the job, Letarte did something that surprised even Gordon: He ripped up two years' worth of notes and told his driver that they were going to build new race cars from scratch. Gordon and Letarte then headed to Atlanta for a two-day test session--two days that would end up changing the course of Gordon's career.
They were inseparable. As the '05 season wound down, Vandebosch was at Gordon's side for nearly every race. They had begun dating the previous fall, and Gordon was seriously taken with Vandebosch. Ingrid did something to Jeff, something that everyone close to him noticed: She loosened him up. Made him feel relaxed. Made him, well, discover who he really was. "Ingrid is the first person that Jeff has ever been around who actually understands him," says Bickford. "He's not afraid to be himself anymore, imperfections and all. Ingrid is funny, well-educated, worldly, and she brought out this whole new side to Jeff."
Gordon's demeanor at the track changed. He toned down the Christianity talk (his faith, though, is still strong) and started kidding around more, even occasionally telling jokes. Even if his car was lousy, there would be an easy smile on his face--the unmistakable sign of a man in love.
The feeling was mutual. "What [attracted] me to Jeff was that he is really cute, and I love his blue eyes," Vandebosch says via e-mail, "but what was most important to me is his good heart and his honesty. He is a real fun and positive person and does not let anything bring him down."
The two were sitting on a couch in Gordon's town house in Charlotte on Mother's Day in 2006 when they started talking about their future. Jeff wasn't planning on proposing and he didn't have an engagement ring, but gusts of passion started to blow, and suddenly the power of the moment struck him. Ever since his first marriage, Gordon had promised himself that he wouldn't wed again until his racing days were over. But as he looked at Vandebosch on this Sunday afternoon in May, Gordon kept thinking to himself: Why should I fight this? Why should I limit myself? Finally, his blue eyes met hers, and he said simply, "You know what, why don't we get married?"
They kept the engagement a secret for nearly six weeks. Then on June 24 Gordon held a croquet party--yes, he is the one NASCAR driver who actually enjoys his croquet--at Meadowood resort, in the heart of wine country in Northern California. The dozen guests were dressed in traditional white croquet attire, and after playing they took their seats around an outdoor table on a sprawling lawn. As the sun was setting over the Napa Valley, Gordon raised a glass of lemonade to his family and friends and said, "Ingrid and I are no longer dating." Gordon, who's always had a keen sense of theatre, paused, letting the crowd wonder if the couple was breaking up. Then he proclaimed, "We're getting married!"
A few weeks after the union of Gordon and Letarte became official, the duo headed to Atlanta Motor Speedway in October 2005 for a test session. For the previous two years Gordon had essentially used the same setup in his number 24 Chevy as teammate Jimmie Johnson did in his number 48. "Jimmie had been running good for so long that we just tried to emulate what he was doing," says Gordon. "But that just didn't work. Jimmie and I have different driving styles. I don't use as much brake getting into the corner as he does. And I never felt comfortable in the car. I couldn't push it to the limit because I was loose into the corner."