Editorial

Highlights of 2006 NASCAR Media Tour - Day 2
by Pete McCole

January 24, 2006

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Robert Yates Racing team
Pete McCole

The 23rd Annual NASCAR Nextel Cup Media Tour presented by Lowe’s Motor Speedway rolled onto day two on Tuesday starting off with a visit to the shops of Robert Yates Racing.

Team owner Robert Yates was on hand to outline several key personnel changes to his two Nextel Cup teams as well as an expanded schedule for the teams Busch Series operation.

Richard “Slugger” Labbe will serve as crew chief for the no. 88 UPS Ford Fusion and driver Dale Jarrett while Tommy Baldwin, Jr., comes over from Evernham Motorsports to become the crew chief for the no. 38 M&M’S Team and driver Elliott Sadler.

Kevin Buskirk, who has been serving in an interim crew chief role for the no. 38 M&M’S team, will become the Technical and Performance Director for all of RYR. The team has also added Ed Guzzo to the organization and will serve as the Production and Operational Director.

RYR will also field a full-time Busch Series team with sponsorship from CitiFinancial as part of their driver development plan for drivers Matt McCall and Stephen Leicht, who will share seat time along with Sadler.


MB2 Motorsports shop
Pete McCole

The tour next moved on to MB2 Motorsports new 144,000 square-foot facility housing their three Nextel Cup teams.

While many teams in Nextel Cup have gone with the youth movement for their driving stables, MB2 have taken the opposite approach, adding 30-year Nextel Cup veteran Sterling Marlin as a teammate to driver Joe Nemechek. The team will also field a car for 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott for the 2006 Daytona 500 as well as a part-time schedule for road-course specialist Boris Said.

At 49, Marlin is the elder statesman at MB2, but hopes he can still continue to be competitive and put his wealth of knowledge to good use with his new team.


MB2 Motorsports team
Pete McCole

“I’ve had a good career, but I feel there’s more to get done,” said Marlin. “MB2 is an organization that’s on an upswing. Hopefully, we’ll be able to win a few races and be competitive every week.”

Marlin and Elliott have four Daytona 500 victories between them, experience Nemechek hopes he can benefit from when the series heads to the season-opening event.

“Sterling has a lot more years in racing in NASCAR than I do, so I’m the young guy on the team,” said Nemechek. “Having Bill (Elliott) there for the Daytona 500, they know what they need to do to win. I’ve never won at Daytona, and the way they’re limiting testing, I think having a veteran driver like Sterling in the other car I think I can learn more from him than from the limited testing they’re going to give me.”

The next stop brought the tour to the shop of the 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup Champions at Joe Gibbs Racing. Tony Stewart, along team owner J.D. Gibbs, crew chief Greg Zipadelli and the rest of the Home Depot crew were at the White House in Washington, D.C. where President Bush honored the team for their championship-winning season and were not available for the tour.

Unlike MB2 Motorsports, the youth movement is in full swing at JGR, with Busch Series drivers J.J. Yeley and Denny Hamlin moving up to join a deep field of rookies vying for the 2006 Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award. Both drivers will run a full schedule in both the Nextel Cup and Busch Series.

Yeley takes over the familiar no. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet from the departing Bobby Labonte, leaving the rookie driver with some big shoes to fill.

“It’s going to be difficult, being a rookie taking over one of the more premiere rides, it’s going to be a lot more pressure,” said Yeley. “There’s a lot of fans that hopefully will stay with Joe Gibbs Racing and have to go out there and perform for those people, so there’s going to be little bit more pressure there.”

Like Stewart, Yeley is an experienced open-wheel veteran with a similar driving style, allowing the teams to share information far more effectively than they were able to do in the past.

“With myself and Tony, we have very similar driving characteristics, whereas Bobby (Labonte) and Tony were 180 (degrees) out,” said Yeley. “Bobby was an old-school, late-model guy, he had a feel that we wanted, and Tony was almost the opposite. Since we're all on the same page now, it’s going to be easier for the crew chiefs to work together and get the cars fine-tuning all the more easier and I think it’s going to make the program a lot better.”

JGR will continue to support several drivers in their driver development program with drivers Woody Howard and Joey Lagano in the Hooters Pro Cup Series as well as Aric Almirola and Chris Bristol in their NASCAR Dodge Weekly Racing late model diversity program started by the late NFL great Reggie White.

The afternoon session was wrapped up with a stop at the host track for the tour, Lowe’s Motor Speedway, where track owner Bruton Smith and speedway president and general manager H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler outlined changes to the 2.5-mile facility including a $3 million re-paving project that Wheeler said will give the track an “attitude adjustment”.

In an effort to improve side-by-side racing at the track, speedway officials elected to smooth out the racetrack last season using a laser-guided diamond-grinding process know as levigating. The unexpected result were record high speeds, leading up to a NASCAR record 22 caution flags in last May’s Coca Cola 600 and a rash of tire failures during the fall race here.

Wheeler said track officials spent several months consulting with engineers and motorsports industry insiders before deciding on a resurfacing plan they believe will promote side-by-side racing and passing without completely reinventing the track's personality.

"We are going to remold the track to take some of the meanness out of it," said Wheeler "This is one of the meanest tracks on the NEXTEL Cup circuit and by that I mean it can bite you when you least expect it.”

"To really understand a race track, you need to look at it from high above right after a race and study where the black groove is," Wheeler explained. "What you want is for that groove to be two-car widths wide so you can have side-by-side racing and passing, which is one of the main reasons people buy tickets.

"To achieve this, we are going to change the profile of the turns by smoothing them out and making the radiuses more consistent," Wheeler continued. "This will make the track more predictable."

Engineers will utilize three-dimensional digital surveying techniques and computer-controlled paving machines, technology not available when the track was built in 1960 or last repaved in 1994.

In excess of 10,000 tons of the special asphalt mixture will be required to cover the entire 1.5-mile speedway and pit road. The paving is scheduled to be completed by March 27, allowing time for a Goodyear tire test prior to the May 1-3 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series testing session.

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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