NASCAR Media Day 2 Report

by Pete McCole

January 25, 2005

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2005 NASCAR Media Tour

The 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup Media Tour continued Wednesday. On the docket for Day Two were visits with Haas CNC Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Evernham Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing.

The day began bright and early on Tuesday morning with a breakfast press conference with Haas CNC Racing at the University Hilton where the team introduced their new driver - 2002 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Champion Mike Bliss.

Bliss’ disastrous Cup season in 2000 with A.J. Foyt and the now-defunct Eel River Racing sent him bolting to the truck series in 2001. He spent the 2004 season driving for Joe Gibbs in the NASCAR Busch Series.

“I tried driving in Cup in 2000 and after that experience I said I’d never want to come back,” Busch said. “When this opportunity came up, I was really excited about it. I think this team hasn’t shown what they’re really capable of doing.”

A visit to Haas CNC Racing
All photos by Pete McCole

Although a single-car team, Haas CNC Racing has had a long relationship with Hendrick Motorsports, providing Haas with engines, cars and technical support.

“You sometimes feel like you’re on an island as a single-car team,” said crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker, “but in truth, while we are a single team, with Hendrick support, we’re right there with all the information and all the technology, it’s just up to us to use it.”

The tour moved on to a shop visit to Joe Gibbs Racing, where team owner Joe Gibbs and JGR team president J.D. Gibbs were joined on stage by drivers Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Jason Leffler.

Joe Gibbs addresses the crowd

Joe Gibbs spent much of 2004 away from racing, returning to the National Football League after an 11-year hiatus to coach the Washington Redskins, leaving much of the day-to-day operations to his son, J.D.

“This is a friendlier press crowd than what I’ve been used to in the last few months,” said Joe Gibbs, who led the Redskins to a 6-10 record in 2004. “People ask me all the time, ‘what’s it like to be in racing?’ and I tell them racing is just like football. In football, you have quarterbacks, in racing, you have drivers. In football, you have coaches, over here, you have crew chiefs.”

Among the changes at JGR is the expansion to three teams in 2005, adding driver Jason Leffler in the no. 11 Chevy with sponsorship from Federal Express.

“Looking at how we put our team together, we’re probably a little slow to go to two teams as we did years ago,” said J.D. Gibbs. “We’re probably a little slow to go to three teams, but I think what we did was take our time, and really wanted to make sure it was a great fit and have all the crew chiefs and drivers sign off on it and I think everyone unanimously chose Jason and (crew chief) Dave (Rogers) to head that project up.”

Leffler previously drove for Gibbs in the Busch Series in 1999, but parted company with JGR and raced full-time for Chip Ganassi in the Cup Series. Leffler struggled in his rookie season in the Cup Series and was released at the end of the year. He spent last season in the Busch Series driving for Haas CNC Racing.

Leffler now feels JGR is a much better fit, plus the added advantage of having two previous series champions as teammates

“I think this is definitely a better situation for me,” Leffler said of his previous Cup experience. “At the time I wasn’t ready to go Cup racing, and Ganassi wasn’t ready to have a rookie driver.

“My goal is to run up front. You run up front, you win races, the points will take care of themselves. We have all the resources in the world here at Joe Gibbs Racing, we have a great sponsor, so there’s no reason we won’t compete for a win. It may take us awhile for the team to gel, but I think realistically we have a shot to win race and to run up front every week. That’s all you can ask for.”

Winning races is also foremost on Labonte’s mind.

Labonte and his team suffered through a long, difficult season, compounded by internal problems within the team. Labonte and crew chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain never quite clicked, resulting in McSwain’s unceremonious dismissal in July. Labonte continued to struggle, finishing the year without a victory for the first time since 1994.

“We were competitive – in the top five in points early in the season, but obviously with the changes we made midway through the season (with McSwain), we lost our enthusiasm and our confidence, and that hurt us the most of anything,” Labonte said. “We’re keyed up to go this season and get last year behind us, and get last year’s questions answered and away from us and hopefully after the third or fourth race we’ll be talking about what’s exciting about this year and not talking about last year.”

Stewart represented JGR in the Chase for the Championship last season. Stewart began the Chase for the Championship fourth in the standings, but a DNF in the first race in the Chase dropped him to ninth on the standings, a deficit from which the team never fully recovered.

“I think from our standpoint we weren’t worried about the points since we were solidly in the top ten when the Chase started,” Stewart said. “I think what we’re looking for more with our team this year is trying to be more consistent, if we can just do that then that will get us into the top ten.”

Evernham Motorsports

The next stop on the tour was another shop visit, this time to the flagship shop of the Dodge Motorsports stable – Evernham Motorsports. Team owner Ray Evernham was on hand, along with drivers Kasey Kahne, Jeremy Mayfield and Bill Elliott.

Kahne made a major impact in his rookie season in NNC, coming within inches from grabbing his first victory in just the second race of the season. Although he took home the 2004 Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award, he still couldn’t put one in the “win” column, making the first time since 1998 that a rookie hasn’t made it to victory lane.

“I really want that first win,” said Kahne. “I’m excited about the (2005) season, I think we have a lot we learned from last year. I think we have some really good people here, a lot of good things going on to help us this season.

“Our expectations are definitely higher than last year, we need to run more consistent, get more top tens, win races and get in that top-10, that’s the expectations”

Although Kahne came up just short of making the Chase, teammate Jeremy Mayfield managed to race his way into the Chase with a win at Richmond, leaping from 14th to 10th to fill the last spot in the Chase. Mayfield unfortunately faired the worst of the Chase contenders, gaining only 990 points over the final ten races, ending the season 10th in points.

“I’ve felt an urgency to get this year going. I knew last year was a great year, but it was like a building year. This year will be different,” said Mayfield. “I’m confident about all my guys and the new car and the way everything is going at Evernham Motorsports. We’re just beginning, and I’m excited about that. We want the Chase more now than we’ve ever wanted it. I don’t know if it changes anything, but right now I’m looking at the big picture on down the road.”

It has been a busy off-season as well for Evernham Motorsports, which spearheaded the development of Dodge’s new entry in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series – the Dodge Charger – which made its on-track debut during January’s testing sessions at Daytona International Speedway.

“The car was done here in conjunction with the folks from Dodge, and my engineering staff with Dr. Eric Warren and his group,” said Evernham. “They worked with Dodge and built all the cars here at the Dodge Research and Development Center that we have in-house here, so the cars were basically developed and built here. Petty Enterprises were part of the development process. The other Dodge teams were invited to be part of it, but the Petty group was really a big part of it.”

“Going out with the Charger I hope will be a benefit, it looks like it’s going to be a good race car. We’ve been really weak on the speedways, and we hope that’s where the Charger is going to help us. With the new spoiler rules I think it’s going to be a learning curve for everyone, not just the Dodge teams.

“The Charger is just something we have to get used to, but we’ve done that before. We have not gone through a year yet (at Evernham) that we have not had to re-body everything we had. It’s just something we have to get used to.”

1988 series champion Bill Elliott did much of the on-track testing of the new Charger. Elliott retired from full-time competition after last season, heading a growing list of veteran drivers who are easing out of racing.

“You get in your 40’s, the handwriting is on the wall,” Elliott said. “You can’t do this forever. I just don’t think physically you can take it, on and on and on, you’re eventually going to have to give it up. I could probably still do it for another year or two, but eventually I’m going to have to give it up. We don’t live forever.”

Richard Childress Racing

For the evening portion of the program, the tour visited Childress Vineyards in Lexington, N.C., where he was joined by Nextel Cup Series drivers Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Dave Blaney and Kerry Earnhardt and Busch Series driver Clint Boyer.

Childress Vineyards was started last October by Childress, who acquired a passion for during his career as a driver, visiting vineyards with friends while we has racing in California.

After a long and difficult season in 2004 that saw RCR go winless for the first time since 1997, Childress enters the new season with two new drivers in addition to a new sponsor.

Kevin Harvick and the #29 Goodwrench team spent almost all of the first 26 races securely among the top ten in points, but two bad finishes at Bristol and California late in the season sent them tumbling from 8th to 15th in points and out of the Chase. On top of it all, Harvick failed to win a race in 2004, his first winless season since taking over the Goodwrench Chevy following Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001.

“We’re excited about everything that we’ve got going this season,” said Harvick. “We proved last year we are capable of running up front. We’ve pretty much started from scratch this season, we’ve built all new cars, all new chassis, new bodies and everything from ground zero. That, to me, is a huge commitment from Richard and from the guys in the shop. Whether it’s good or bad this year, it won’t be from lack of effort.”

“We let Kevin down in a couple of races, we lost a couple of engines, we were in the race for the chase right up until the last couple races,” said Childress. “It wasn’t fun, but we were trying to build, and we had a lot of momentum going with all three of our teams at the end of the year.

“We don’t want to be on the outside looking in this year, we want to be in that chase for the championship.”

Dave Blaney comes on board full-time after making seven starts for Childress in the no.30 America On-Line Chevy in 2004, splitting time with Childress, Bill Davis Racing and Roush Racing. Along with a new driver comes a new sponsor, and a new car number, as Jack Daniel's brand whiskey comes aboard the newly numbered 07 Chevrolet.

“I’m just so glad to have a chance to drive for a race team like RCR that is so committed to run up front, committed to win,” said Blaney. “Any team you can find like that, that’s what you’re looking for as a driver, no matter if it’s NASCAR or sprint car or whatever, those are the kind of race teams you want to drive for. To have teammates like these guys that want to run up front, win races, contend for titles, I can’t ask for a better group to be associated with.”

Jeff Burton moves from the former no.30 car into the no. 31 Cingular Chevrolet, replacing Robby Gordon. Burton spent the last 8 ½ seasons with Roush Racing before departing in August after failing to find sponsorship for his Roush team.

“I can tell you from the short amount of time I’ve been with this team, there’s been a tremendous amount of effort to get this team back to the top,” Burton said. “There’s a lot of optimism around the shop right now. Kevin and Dave and I, we all seem to be real open minded about helping each other, and I think that’s going to help us tremendously.”

Childress hopes Burton’s experience in his 11 years in NASCAR will help bring a stability that was lacking with Childress’ previous mix of drivers.

“We just want to get RCR back on track,” Childress said. “We brought in Jeff Burton  and he’s going to bring a lot to the table as far as consistently. He knows cars, he knows chassis, he knows a lot about what it takes to be consistent and to win, so I think he’s going to be a huge plus for us.

“This group of guys are committed to win, and that’s what we’ve got to have.”

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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