The 2015 version of the annual NASCAR media tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, wrapped up Thursday. The four days consist of regimented hours filled with visits from the many of the teams NASCAR fans will cheer for on Sunday during the NASCAR season that starts in just a few short weeks,
For over three decades journalists from all over the world have descended on Charlotte ready to get the season started. What used to be a relatively small group of newspaper reporters that traveled to most of the raceshop’s in and around the area has now grown to over 250 people representing all forms of media including the Internet, radio and TV.
Over the years the tour has evolved into an event that involves very little travel. One thing has remained constant in the last few years: very little in the way of “real” news comes out of the sessions. All the teams, big and small are “excited” to get the season going and every driver is going to win the championship. There are still plenty of highlights throughout the week and some memorable moments and quotes. Here are some of the highlights from the past four days.
Monday began with the annual “State of the Sport” from NASCAR and unlike years past there were no big stunning announcements; NASCAR Chairman Brian France said there will be no changes to NASCAR’s Chase which was introduced last year.
“The Chase was overwhelmingly popular (in 2014) with our most important stakeholder – the fans,” said France. “They like the fact that it tightened up competition, the drama down the stretch, the emphasis on winning. What they really liked is that we weren’t going to change anything. And we’re not going to.”
There are some changes for this season much of which won’t be seen by fans. New technology will be used by officials on pit road, actually in a trailer behind pit road. Officials will use 46 HD cameras to monitor pit road and to check for infractions. There will be only a handful of officials on the pit lane.
The first visit by a team came from Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR has a new addition to the team. Carl Edwards left his home at Roush-Fenway Racing and will take the green flag at Daytona in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Edwards said making the decision to leave the only team he has race for in NASCAR wasn’t easy, but now that it’s done he’s ready to go racing alongside his new teammates and for new crew chief Darien Grubb. Last season all three Gibbs teams made the Chase and all finished inside the top 10 in points. Whether the addition of a fourth team will help or hurt this year remains to be seen.
“We’re going to have a chance every single week,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. “It’s a thrill for all of us at Joe Gibbs Racing and I’m really thankful to be a part of something like this.”
Stewart-Haas Racing greeted the tour on Tuesday. It’s been no secret that team owner Tony Stewart has had some challenges. Just as he started to fully recover from a broken leg the year before, Stewart was involved in a fatal racing accident on a dirt track in upstate New York. He missed several races and faced possible legal trouble. The legal troubles went away and Stewart returned to racing but didn’t seem the same. Months have passed and while he has not forgotten the tragedy last August, Tuesday he seemed more like the Tony Stewart of old.
“I’m not happy about the last two years of my life,” said Stewart. “It’s given me more drive and desire to get back to the old form that our fans and sponsors are used to seeing us in. This is probably the most prepared I’ve been in a while for a season.”
Stewart did have a reason to celebrate at the end of 2014. His driver Kevin Harvick, in his first year with the team, won the NASCAR Sprint Cup title in a thrilling last lap fight at Homestead. It’s the second title for the team and the first for Harvick.
“There’s a sense of responsibility for the sport, as the champion, to make sure that you represent the sport and do the things you need to in order to grow the sport,” said Harvick. “It is way more fun to win the championship than to lose it. That’s motivation in itself (to try and win it again). You want to move forward and keep doing your job the best that you can.”
Danica Patrick is entering her third season. She will start the season with new crew chief in Daniel Knost.
“With a new crew chief we need to get to know each other,” she said. “I’ll be putting a lot of hard work into getting our communication going. After that, it’s picking up where I left off (last year) with crew chief Tony Gibson.”
Gibson is now crew chief for Kurt Busch. Busch is dealing with legal troubles of his own, a domestic violence investigation is still ongoing. Because of that Busch couldn’t really talk about that only the season ahead.
“We want to continue to build off the success we had from 2014, winning a race and making the Chase, but that’s not what we’re here to do,” said Busch. “We’re here to shoot for a championship. We want to build on the team’s chemistry, using those last three races with Tony; those are the types of races we know we are capable of putting together.”
Michael Waltrip Racing was next up on Tuesday. Both their drivers, Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers failed to make the Chase. Vickers continued to battle health issues, undergoing open heart surgery in December. Amazingly it seems, he has been medically cleared to race in March.
“It was a pretty traumatic event and definitely the worst of all the medical issues I’ve had to face,” said Vickers “I was able to make it through… and the recovery process was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. But I had really good care and tremendous support from my family and this team.”
While Vickers continues his recovery, team owner Michael Waltrip will race the No. 55 Toyota in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 22, while 22-year-old Brett Moffitt will the behind the wheel at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 1.
“He’s been doing a lot of testing for our team and has won a lot of K&N (Pro Series East) races for our team,” said Waltrip. “And he was the driver that everybody at Michael Waltrip Racing wanted to be in that car at Atlanta. We know how much he’s helped us … and we’re going to reward him for all that work with a chance to drive a winning race car.”
Bowyer became a new dad near the end of last season. It was a season though he’d rather forget.
“There’s no need to sugarcoat anything. Last year sucked – for all of us,” said Bowyer. “I love what I’m seeing at the shop. We’ve made some internal changes and I think our cars are headed in the right direction. I’m ready to get to the racetrack.”
JTG Daugherty Racing is looking for more success on the track. They scored their first ever Cup win last year as AJ Allmendinger raced to victory on the road course at Watkins Glen NY.
“He’s a road-course ringer,” crew chief Brian Burns said of Allmendinger. “This year is our turn to make sure that we’re consistent at all the tracks we go to. Our biggest focus is being consistent. We know that being part of a championship team, everywhere that you unload, you want to have the expectations that you can win.”
HScott Motorsports joined JTG on stage and announced that they are adding a second car with driver Michael Annett. He will join Justin Allgaier who is starting his second full year in Cup.
“I think having a teammate is paramount to have somebody that you can bounce ideas off of and compare to on a race weekend,” said Allgaier. “Last year we were kind of on our own island. We weren’t able to really push the envelope because we were so focused on working and trying to learn.”
Finally Tuesday, NBC unveiled their lineup for 2105. NBC is returning to NASCAR after eight and half years away. In the second half of the season they will broadcast 20 Cup races and 19 XFINITY races. Jeff Behnke, vice president of NASCAR at NBC Sports, was joined on stage by Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, who will both be NASCAR analysts. Joining via live stream from the NBC Sports studio in Stamford, Connecticut were new raceday announcer Rick Allen and recently retired driver Jeff Burton. Steve Letarte, former crew chief for Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was there in studio as well . The three will be in the broadcast booth calling the races from July through November.
Krista Voda and Nate Ryan are also joining NBC Sports’ NASCAR team, providing pre-race and post-race coverage on air and online. Mike Massaro in the new host of NASCAR America in 2015. NASCAR America will have daily look-ins and interviews at many of the race shops thanks to the help of their NBC Sports’ Charlotte-based studio. Rutledge Wood will be a lifestyle reporter.
Tuesday night was capped off by a visit to the new Ford Performance and Technical Center in Concord, North Carolina. The center has an Formula One grade simulator, which will help drivers with off-track testing on all NASCAR affiliated tracks. There are also stations for analytics research, car design calibration and measuring. Ford teams are able to use facility from everything from testing, to research to parts service.
Wednesday opened with a visit from Team Penske. The team had 22 total wins, 11 of them coming in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Brad Keselowski was responsible for six of those wins and for several post-race scuffles. Don’t expect him to change his ways in 2015.
“I made guys mad racing for the win, it wasn’t racing for 20th,” Keselowski said. “You get in a wreck and a fight racing for 20th, that doesn’t make SportsCenter. You get in a wreck and a fight with a previous champion, racing for a championship, going for a win; you’re probably doing the right things. In some ways it’s kind of a compliment. Most people might not see it that way, but I do.”
His teammate Joey Logano kept his cool and went to victory lane five times. He made it to the final round of the Chase only to see it all come apart at Homestead. Logano was in the middle of several incidents the in years past.
“I was excited it wasn’t me for a change,” he laughed. “My year was the year before and last year was Brad’s year for it, I guess. Hopefully none of us are in it (this year) though, and we’ll just get to race.”
Ryan Blaney will entered in most of the races for Team Penske’s No. 22 car in the XFINITY Series, splitting seat time with Keselowski and Logano. Blaney is also racing part time in the Cup Series for Wood Brothers Racing. The famous Wood Brothers and Team Penske formed a technical alliance for 2015.
Roush-Fenway Racing was the second team visit Wednesday. The team founded by Jack Roush has a different, younger, look for 2015. Losing Carl Edwards took some veteran experience away; they added Elliott Sadler and Greg Biffle has the oldest veteran on the team. They will be joined by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and rookie Trevor Bayne. , Sadler will be the leader for a strong XFINITY Series group that includes Bubba Wallace, Chris Buscher and Ryan Reed.
“The hole in our performance (last year) was at the mile-and-a-half and two-mile racetracks, which has typically been our strength,” said team owner Jack Roush, who’s beginning his 28th year in NASCAR. “I’ve never been more excited about our lineup of drivers. … I couldn’t be more happy with our (XFINITY) program and now we just need to get out there with our Cup cars and see what we can do.”
Wood Brothers Racing and Leavine Family Racing appeared together on stage and revealed their respective part-time schedules in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for 2015.
Leavine Family Racing (LFR) will once again have Michael McDowell racing for them. McDowell started 19 races for LFR in 2014, earning one top-10.
Wood Brothers Racing will give Ryan Blaney his ride. The 21-year-old Blaney has only two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts in his career, but is a two-time winner in the XFINITY Series. The team is looking for its 100th win in its 65th year running in NASCAR.
“I come from a long family of racing,” said Blaney, referencing his father Dave and uncle Dale – both of whom raced in NASCAR. “The Wood Brothers have been around for a long time, so that’s pretty special to be a part of. I’m going to do whatever I can to get them back into victory lane.”
Thursday, the final day was a somewhat emotional one. It began with Furniture Row Racing and driver Martin Truex Jr. Much of the attention was away from Truex on the track and on longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex who is overcoming ovarian cancer
Truex said Pollex completed her last chemotherapy treatment this week and looks to be on the road to recovery.
“It seems like every day she’s getting more back to normal and it’s only been four days,” Truex said. “It’s been a tough road; it’s obviously had some challenges. All in all, she did an amazing job. She’s special. The way she was able to get through it, like no one has ever done before, was impressive and inspiring. It’s going to make me work harder this year, that’s for sure.”
Truex has a new crew chief this year, Cole Pearn. While Pearn is new to the position, Furniture Row Racing has been training him to lead the team. He moves up from team engineer to atop the pit box.
Richard Childress Racing was the second visit Thursday. Childress will field a total of seven teams this year three Sprint Cup and four XFINITY Series cars. In the Sprint Cup Series, Austin Dillon returns, Paul Menard goes into his fourth season with RCR and Ryan Newman will try to race his way back into the Chase. Last year Newman nearly won it all despite not winning a single race. He fell one spot short losing the title to Harvick at the season’s title race in Homestead.
“We were one caution flag short,” team owner Richard Childress said.“But that was history; we’re looking at the future. We all know we have to win races to get in the Chase and that’s our goal.”
Newman too doesn’t want to reflect on the past. He’s looking to the future.
“We did the best we possibly could and came up a little bit short, but I have no regrets about any part of it,” Newman said. “I think we all did an awesome job to get to where we were. Our theory was always fight and we never quit fighting and we never will. I know that if and when we win, it’s going to be spectacular.”
The final team visit of the day and the tour came from Hendrick Motorsports. Normally drivers Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are stars of the show. This year was different however. Jeff Gordon announced only a week ago that 2105 will be his last as a full time driver. He will step away after becoming an icon of the sport. Thursday it was all about him.
“I’m just so thankful to Rick,” Gordon said as team owner Rick Hendrick sat beside him on stage. “I mean, he gave me a chance, you know – I was a young kid – to be a part of this organization. And to know that I’ve always driven for him throughout my whole career and the success that we’ve had together and the friendship, partnership, a lot of great, great moments. I just couldn’t be more thankful.”
Hendrick announced only hours earlier that Chase Elliott will take over the iconic No. 24 in 2016 after Gordon steps away. In the interim the youngest ever driver to win a national series NASCAR title, will enter five Cup races this year as he prepares to move to the car Gordon has raced for over two decades. Elliott said he was glad to have Gordon’s approval to take over his spot.
“It made me even more excited to be a part of it next year,” Elliot said. “And to have him (Gordon) involved, as well, I think he’s going to be a huge involvement next year and for many years to come. I’m looking forward to learning as much as I can from him; he’s a guy that there’s a lot to be learned from, so hopefully I can make the most of that.”
As the tour ended and the journalists went their separate ways, all knew that it wouldn’t be long before they were together again. The season opening Daytona 500 is less than a month away signaling the start to another long NASCAR season.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK (Compiled by Charlotte Motor Speedway staff)
“Everyone’s giving me a hard time about the Packers, but I say, ‘at least they play in January.'”
Matt Kenseth, talking about his Green Bay Packers’ loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game
“I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”
~ Ricky Stenhouse Jr., mocking Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch’s press conference at Tuesday’s Super Bowl Media Day.
“It’s kind of hard to come to the podium after Chip (Ganassi) because he said pretty much everything that can be said about the racing operation. So I’m here today to talk about Cuba.”
– CGR co-team owner and Cuban-born Felix Sabates
“To everyone’s surprise, I did miss a left-hand turn.”
–Jimmie Johnson explaining why he got lost during a recent half-Ironman