NASCAR Media Day 4 Report

by Pete McCole

January 28, 2005

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2005 NASCAR Media Tour

The 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup Media Tour hosted by Lowe’s Motor Speedway came to a close on Thursday, featuring visits to Roush Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates before finishing out the tour at Hendrick Motorsports.

First stop on the tour Thursday was Roush Racing, where team owner Jack Roush was joined by 2004 Nextel Cup Champion Kurt Busch along with Roush Racing Nextel Cup drivers Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Craftsman Truck Series drivers Ricky Craven and Todd Kluever

Three of Roush Racing’s five full-time Nextel Cup teams made the Chase for the Championship, with Busch bringing team owner Jack Roush his second straight Cup title following Matt Kenseth’s championship run in 2003, a success rate Roush hopes will carry over into 2005.

Jack Roush

“I won't predict a three-peat, but I think 2005 is going to be a great year, no matter what,” Roush said. “I wouldn't predict the outcome of a horse race or an automobile race, but I will predict that Mark Martin will not go quietly. I think that speaks volumes.”

Martin’s 2005 season – called the “Salute To You” tour - will be his last in full time competition in Nextel Cup. Martin made the Chase for the Nextel Cup and was the sentimental favorite among many to win the title, but wound up fourth in the final standings.

With four runner-up finishes in the title chase in his career, Martin would love nothing better than go out on top

“Contending for that championship is probably number one on the agenda,” Martin said, “but right behind that the Salute To You tour is the opportunity to thank the fans, give the respect to the media that they deserve and that we've not always had time to do throughout the years, and my sponsors and the people in this sport that really made the memories.

“I look forward to 2005. I realize it's going to be the most challenging year of my career. I've made that commitment to go at it with all the ferocity that I have and my family has made the same commitment.”

Of the ten drivers in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, no one benefited more from the new format than Busch. Had the old points system been in effect, Busch would have finished fourth in the standings, 247 points behind Jeff Gordon, so far back he would have been mathematically eliminated before the final race of the year.

While repeating as champion is his goal, the most daunting task facing Busch for 2005 will be the added responsibilities that comes with being the champion.

“We had a great season," said Busch. “ It was fun to challenge ourselves to be at our best during those final 10 races and for us to go out and repeat is going to be a chore, but that's what our expectations are. We're going to have some fun while we do it and, of course, there are going to be the demands of being a champion and going and doing all the different extra-curricular activities.

“I can't wait to go to the race track next week to get some testing in and get back to the race car - to get back to what I'm very familiar with and comfortable with. Nothing short of another championship would meet our expectations because that's the goal for this next year."

Kenseth and his DeWalt Tools team weren’t able to follow up their 2003 triumph, but they stayed in the hunt throughout the year. After leaving Daytona ninth in points, the team never fell below 5th in the standings prior to the Chase, despite winning only two races.

“We always look forward to better things and after winning the championship in 2003 anything less than that is definitely a letdown, so it was a letdown to finish the year on kind of a down note, but, yet, we did have a good year,” Kenseth said. “ We were able to win some races and had a good time in the Busch Series and the IROC thing was good, so we're just looking forward to trying to improve on everything we did last year.”
Entering his third season in NASCAR’S premiere division, 2002 Busch Series Champion Greg Biffle enjoyed his best season to date, picking up two wins on his way to a 17th-place points finish – 18 positions better than his 2003 season effort.

“The second half of the season was really good for our team,” Biffle said. “Doug and I really feel like we've got our cars where we need to be right now and I feel better, obviously, the best I've ever felt about starting a Nextel Cup season right now. We feel like we're ready. Improving on some race tracks that are in the Nextel Cup chase the last 10 and then making the chase, I think, is going to be the key.”

For Edwards, fresh up from the Craftsman Truck Series where he notched six wins for Roush, 2005 will be a trial by fire, running the full Nextel Cup and NASCAR Busch Series schedule.

“It's a pretty demanding schedule, but I'm just really excited about it. The more racing the better,” said Edwards. “Jack says they're going to try real hard to burn me out a little bit this season, but I don't know if it's possible. We'll see.

“I think anything less than a championship in the Busch Series will be a disappointment for us. I know it's a high expectation considering my experience in the Busch Series and we'd like to be in that top 10 chase, obviously, in the Cup car but those are very lofty goals. I think if we do our work and lean on my teammates, who have obviously had a lot of success, we can do it."

Ganassi Racing

Moving on, the tour next visited the shop of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Team owner Chip Ganassi and drivers Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears welcomed the media to the team’s brand new, state-of-art facility, which officially opened last year.

2004 was a disappointing year for Ganassi, with all three Nextel Cup teams going winless for the second year in a row.

“During 2004 we began to see more consistency in all three teams,” said Ganassi “I think that’s a testament to the way we’ve turned this thing around. We’re operating as one team. Every team here has the same resources and the same equipment. They share information. The only difference in the teams is our people.”

To that end, Ganassi completely re-vamped Marlin’s no. 40 Coors Light team after their disappointing 21st-place showing in the final points, bringing in a new crew and new crew chief Steve Boyer.

“The backbone of the company is the No. 40 Coors Light team,” Ganassi said. “ Last year the 40 team did not perform to our expectations, so we sat down and had to make some significant changes. We did some restructuring, including making Steve Boyer the crew chief. We’ve reworked almost the entire pit crew, and we expect to see some significant improvement in the 40 car this season.

“I think the addition of Steve Boyer as my new crew chief is going to be a big plus,” Marlin said. “I don't know if I'd say I'm under a lot of pressure because there's no doubt in my mind that we are getting things headed in the right direction. We didn't have all that bad of a season last year because we had so much bad luck when we were in contention to win races.”

McMurray enjoyed his best season yet in Nextel Cup, racking up an impressive 23 top-10 and 9 top-5 finishes, including two second-place showings. However, McMurray missed the mark where it counted most – no wins, and, more importantly, no Chase, missing the cut by a mere 15 points.

“We’re not going to do anything different,” said McMurray. “We’ll just go out every week and do the exact same thing we did the second half of last season. We’ve got the same group of people and it’s our third year together. I think one of the most encouraging things for me this year, my first year we started our race team. That’s tough on an organization when you start a brand new team. The majority of racing is mental.”

Mears faired far better in his second season in Nextel Cup, moving up from 35th in the standings in 2003 to 22nd this past season. While the no. 41 Target team managed to put together a good run of top-10 finishes during five of ten races early in the season, they also had four finishes of 32nd or worse during the same stretch.

Mears’ key word for 2005? Consistency.

“The thing we didn’t have last year was consistency,” Mears said. “We’d be good at one track and then the next track we weren’t any good at all. We need to pick up where we left off. Several times we ran in the top five and just couldn’t finish it off. We’ve got to put the last quarter of the race together and be more consistent, focus on the 26 races leading up to The Chase.”

Rick Hendrick

Closing out the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup Media Tour was a stop at Hendrick Motorsports complex, where team owner Rick Hendrick and drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte, Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch showcased their new shop for Labonte and Busch’s Kellogg’s team as well as Vickers’ GMAC team.

2004 started out with so much promise for the Hendrick organization. Coming off the 2003 season with Gordon and Johnson both finishing in the top five and Vickers winning the Busch Series title, the team stood poised to celebrate their 20th anniversary with their sights set on winning the championship in both series.

All that changed on October 24, when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed into a Virginia mountainside en route to the Nextel Cup race at Martinsville.

All ten people aboard were killed, including Rick Hendrick’s brother, John and John’s daughters Jennifer and Kimberly, as well as team general manager Jeff Turner and chief engine builder Randy Dorton.

Also killed was Rick Hendrick’s son Ricky, the heir apparent to his father and the owner of Vickers’ and Busch’s cars.

Ricky had helped plan the new shop for his teams. The goal, says Rick Hendrick, is for the two teams to reap the benefits of working together in the same shop the way the no. 24 and no. 48 teams have done.

“The way I can honor Ricky, my brother, my nieces and Randy is to make this place the best it can be,” said Hendrick. “I've always been a firm believer in having two cars working under one roof. We've got over 500 people who are committed to getting all of our teams and drivers where they need to be. But it's not about having nice facilities, it's about the talent and chemistry of the people.”

It’s been four months and the wounds are still there, but the team soldiers on.

Thursday, Hendrick introduced his son-in-law Marshall Carlson as the new team’s General Manager and Jeff Andrews as head the engine department. Jim Wall will serve as director of engine engineering.

A week after the tragedy, the team wiped away their tears and went to the track to do what they do best – race....and win.

When the checkered flag fell it was Johnson in victory lane for the third week in a row. It was, as Johnson said, the “best medicine.”

Trailing Busch by 18 points heading into the final race of the year, Johnson ended up missing out on his first championship by a slim 8-point margin – the closest finish in Nextel Cup history.

Looking back, Johnson believes he and his team made the right calls over the final ten races.

“You do all that you can,” said Johnson. “We had some big points losses in the final ten, but then again everyone did – Kurt (Busch) had an engine failure at Atlanta, Jeff (Gordon) lost a gear, everybody can look back and say ‘should have, would have’, but I feel very good about every decision we made along the way, and we did all that we could. Sure, we wish we had those eight points, but we’re not going to look back on it and say ‘if only we’d done this.’”

Of all the drivers in the Chase, Gordon should have been the most outspoken critic of the new Chase for the Nextel Cup points system. Under the old points system, Gordon would have been the 2004 champion, beating out Johnson by 47 points.

Gordon is calling his quest or the 2005 title – his fifth – the “Drive For 5 in ’05.”

“You have to race the points the way they’re structured,” Gordon said, “you can always go back and say “boy, I wish they changed the points system one year later’, but other teams might have raced the points system if the old points system had been in place. I like the new points system, I think it’s exciting. We have to win it based on how the points are now, not how they were, and that’s our goal.”

After 27 seasons, 22 wins and two championships, Labonte will run a limited schedule in 2005 and 2006 in the #44 Chevy. Called “Shifting Gears – Lone Star Style”, Labonte’s 10-race schedule in 2005 will culminate on Nov. 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

"I'm going to have a lot more free time now that I'm running a limited schedule. It's going to be weird because I've been racing in this series full time for the last 26 years. We've got a good program put together and I'm looking forward to the new season. I really don't know what to expect.”

Busch, brother of 2004 Nextel Cup Champion Kurt Busch, will take over the driving duties of the #5 Kellogg’s Chevy from Labonte, who is stepping back from the full-time grind.

Taking over the #5 Busch Series from Vickers in 2004, Busch won the Rookie of the Year title in the Busch Series, tying or breaking eight Raybestos Rookie records, including most wins (5) and most top-fives (16) by a rookie. He fought a spirited battle with Martin Truex, Jr. for the Busch Series title but ended up finishing second to Truex.

“We've got a tremendous amount of momentum coming off the great year we had last season in the Busch Series,” said Busch. “I'm very lucky because I've got a bunch of great teammates and I'm going to be relying on them a lot. When I can walk up and ask a guy like Jimmie Johnson for advice, that's information that's invaluable that I can use to my advantage."

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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