NASCAR Media Day 3 Report

by Pete McCole

January 26, 2005

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2005 NASCAR Media Tour

The 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup Media Tour hosted by Lowe’s Motor Speedway rolled on Wednesday, featuring shop visits to the Wood Brothers, Robert Yates Racing and Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

Petty Enterprises started things off on Day Three with an early morning press conference at the University Hilton with team owner and seven-time champion Richard Petty and Jeff Green, driver of the no. 43 Cheerio’s Dodge.

2004 was another trying season for the Pettys. Once the most dominate team in the 1960’s and 70’s, Petty Enterprises has not fielded a winning car since 1999. Drivers Jeff Green and Kyle Petty finished 32nd and 35th in points, respectively, with Green notching PE’s only top 10 finish.

A visit with King Richard Petty
All photos by Pete McCole

"We've been struggling for a long time at Petty Enterprises,” said Petty. “We were struggling when I was still driving. Petty Enterprises has been up and down over the years and hopefully we are headed in the right direction. When you start looking at the things we've been doing, it's not just one thing, but a lot of different things that we needed to do differently. The engines needed to be better, the cars needed to be better and the drivers needed to be better."

Petty will be utilizing Evernham powerplants for their two teams this season, that coupled with the introduction of the new Dodge Charger has given the team a fresh outlook on the 2005 season.

"We all go into the season with high expectations, and we did the same thing last year. But I think our program is 100 percent better this year than it was last year,” Green said. “It's just not our new engine program, but everything is better. We feel like we have as good a chance as anyone. We think we'll have a top-10 car every week and the rest is up to us."

A visit to Wood Brothers  Racing

Next up on the tour was a stop at the Wood Brothers shop in Mooresville, N.C. where team owners Leonard Eddie and Len Wood and driver Ricky Rudd reflected on their 2004 season.

In August of last year, Rudd was reunited with crew chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain, who served as Rudd’s crew chief for three years at Robert Yates Racing, putting together three wins, 34 top-fives and 53 top-tens.

After Fatback’s arrival, the team showed some improvement, posting an average finish of 18.6 over the final 16 races, included a seasons-best second place finish at Kansas Speedway. The team will be looking for more of the same in 2005.

"I'm really proud of this race team,” said Eddie Wood. “We're better than we were a year ago and I think we're going to be really good this year. I think we've got a shot at the top 10. I'd like to thank Ricky and Fatback for working together as well as they do. They really click.”

"It's been a long winter,” McSwain said. “Pretty much every car here has been taken all the way back to the bare frame - modifications made to the frame, improvements, new bodies, and we've done a lot of work in a short period of time. We were real happy with our Daytona test. We ran decent in qualifying speed, but we were really, really happy with the way our car was in race trim. We're definitely looking forward to the next few weeks."

Having competed in the Cup series since 1975, Rudd is one of the elder statesmen on the circuit. Seeing many of his fellow veteran drivers beginning to ease out of full-time competition has led many to wonder when Rudd might finally hang up his driving shoes.

“I'm taking it one year at a time,” said Rudd. “Obviously, I won't be here in five or 10 years, but I think I have a couple more good years in me. With the Yates engine program and everything that the Wood Brothers have assembled here if we aren't able to be competitive and run up front this year, I probably won't be back next year, but if we are competitive and can make the top 10, you'll probably have to put up with me a couple more years."

Dale Jarrett address the audience

The tour moved on for a shop visit to Robert Yates Racing, where drivers Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler drive.

After struggling through the 2003 season with nine DNF’s and a 22nd-place finish in the points, Sadler showed remarkable improvement in 2004, scoring two victories. Sadler never fell below tenth in the point’s standings throughout 2004, putting together a string of six finishes in the top-15 in the final eight races starting the Chase for the Championship in sixth place.

Finishes of 32nd or worse in the final five races put the brakes on Sadler’s title run, falling to a disappointing ninth in the final standings.

“It's hard for me to believe that any team could be better prepared for this season than we are,” Sadler said. “We have done a really great job of dotting our I's and crossing our T's.
We have brilliant teammates here and Mike Ford and Dale Jarrett have been testing the new car configuration for months beginning the last couple months of last season.”

For Jarrett, however, 2004 might well be a season he’d like to forget.

The season started off well enough for Jarrett, with the 1999 series champion winning the pre-season Budweiser Shootout, but his momentum proved fleeting. Although Jarrett and his no. 88 UPS team did manage to post five finishes of fourth or better, Jarrett went winless for the first time since 1992.

An 18-year veteran of the Cup series, Jarrett was also asked if retirement was in his immediate future.

“I've given it a lot of thought and I've seen a lot of the guys my age getting ready to retire, but they started earlier than I did, so I am going to stay at it a little longer,” Jarrett said. “My contract is for two more years, but I'd like to stay around a little longer. If Robert and Doug Yates and UPS would have me back, I think I would look at racing through probably 2007. I have a minimum of two years and probably three left."

A visit to DEI

The final stop of the afternoon session was at the shop of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was joined by Busch Series Champion Martin Truex, Jr. and DEI Busch Series driver Paul Menard as they talked about changes the team has made for the 2005 season.

As NASCAR’s reigning most popular driver and winner of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. seemed the odds-on pick to win the championship. He entered the Chase third and grabbed the lead following the race at New Hampshire, but a 25-point penalty for swearing during his Victory Lane celebration at Talladega knocked him out of the points lead for good.

Hoping for better results in 2005, the team made some major changes in the off season, promoting Pete Rondeau to crew chief of the no. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet.

Rondeau, who called the shots for Earnhardt’s Busch Series win at Bristol, was crew chief for Michael Waltrip’s #15 NAPA Chevy for the last half of the season. He will be replaced be Tony Eury, Jr., who previously served as car chief on the #8.

Earnhardt’s former crew chief Tony Eury, Sr. was promoted to Director of Competition for DEI, replacing Steve Hmiel, who moves up to Technical Director for DEI.

“I feel pretty confident about the season,” Earnhardt said. “I’m really looking forward to going to the early tests at California and Las Vegas and see how Pete (Rondeau) and I work together. I’m looking forward to it, it’s something new, it’s a change of pace for me, and that’s always good. From the get-go, the changes have been really positive. A lot of guys in the company were excited about it, but some questioned ‘why this, why now?’ but everybody seems to be understanding of the situation. It’s wasn’t just strictly about me.”

Truex, Jr., will be looking to repeat as Busch Series Champion in 2005, as well as running as many as seven Nextel Cup races in the no. 1 car with sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops.

“We’re looking to bring everyone from our Busch Series team up with us and all move up to Nextel Cup together,” Truex said. “If (DEI) had a team that was ready for a new driver, then maybe it might be a good decision to go Cup racing already. We’ll run seven races this year, get our cars built and learn as much as we can so we can be prepared when we finally do go Cup racing.”

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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