Familiar faces
Day 3 of NASCAR media tour

   by Rick Benjamin
January 25, 2006

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Wood Brothers/JTG Racing shop
Pete McCole

The third day of the annual NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte highlighted the 2006 plans of two of Nextel Cup racing’s major teams, and one team that would like to return to that status.

The legendary Wood Brothers have a new partner, a new, much larger race shop, and several new drivers in their stable. Len and Eddie Wood have joined forces with Tad and Jody Geshickter to form what’s now called Wood Brothers/JTG Racing. The team adds a second limited-schedule Cup car for family scion Jon Wood plus two Craftsman Truck Series teams, one for highly-touted Ford development driver Bobby East, the second for Australian newcomer Marcos Ambrose. The past several seasons have been difficult for the Wood’s organization, struggling with just the single Cup car and limited funding. But their new alliances for 2006 have everyone associated with one of NASCAR’s signature squads smiling.

The Woods and JTG will field Cup veteran Ken Schrader in their familiar #21 Fords. Schrader also brings David Hyder along from BAM Racing to serve as crew chief on the 21 car. Jon Wood will run 7 Cup events beginning in the summer to prepare for an assault on Rookie of the Year honors in 2007. Optimism runs high in the team’s new shops, open just eight weeks. Former Crew Chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain is in charge of the Wood/JTG technical operations, and along with the increased sponsor support JTG principal Tad Geshickter has been able to marshal, McSwain should be able to generate improved performance across the board.

Wood/JTG team officials also believe housing a two-car Busch Series effort in the same building will further key a performance improvement. Cup teams running the Busch Series are nothing new. The move is usually aimed at giving drivers more seat time and teams extra practice. Until now the Woods haven’t been able to take advantage of that. But starting this season that’ll change, which could well put the #21 car back in the hunt for victories. (Related article)

Ganassi men
Pete McCole

The day’s first stop was the huge, sparkling Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates complex north of Concord Regional Airport. Team principal Ganassi participated by phone while attending his IRL team’s Phoenix test, while his partner Sabates faced the assembled reporters. Felix never fails to entertain, and he remained true to his reputation Wednesday. Responding to a question about NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow plan, Sabates called it a “bunch of crap”. Sabates noted the changeover to the new, boxier Cup car, slated to begin next season, will cost the team millions but that engineers and crew chiefs would likely get the cars back up to current speeds quickly.

His partner in the team, Ganassi, noted the COT’s safety features are a positive, but questioned the wisdom of making obsolete sixty or so cars in their current fleet of Dodges. Ganassi also noted his team and virtually all Cup teams would need to run dual development programs for at least a couple of seasons, raising the ante significantly for everyone.

Ganassi was also asked about the move by his former IRL engine partner, Toyota, into the Cup and Busch series starting next season. Chip indicated he has no current plans to join the Toyota fleet, and noted that while the company’s racing strategy is one of doing all that’s needed to win whenever they enter a new series, once victory is achieved, Toyota has a history of “losing interest”.

Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates will field Casey Mears, David Stremme, and Reed Sorensen in their Cup and Busch Series Dodges this season, with both Stremme and Sorensen running the full Busch season as well. Mears will make ten Busch Series starts.

Rick Hendrick
Pete McCole

Wednesday was capped by the tour’s annual visit to Hendrick Motorsports, usually the most heavily attended stop of the week. Team owner Rick Hendrick hosted the media throng in his usual positive tone, despite the personal tragedies he’s endured in recent months. Young gun Kyle Busch comes off a Rookie of the Year campaign in the Kellogg’s 5 car, and to say he’s excited about the coming season is putting it mildly. Busch says his team was the first to begin testing with the ’06 Monte Carlo, working hard to improve the team’s intermediate-track program. Hendrick, like most teams, has figured out that the 1.5 mile tracks are the key to winning a Cup championship. Thus they are placing heavy emphasis on downforce-generating race cars to earn the most points. Busch became the youngest driver ever to win a Cup pole and a Cup race last season, and he’s surely one of the preseason favorites to make the Chase in the coming year.

Four-time champ Jeff Gordon was also relaxed and confident about his chances heading into the new year. Gordon talked about how his team used the last dozen 2005 events to begin their ’06 season, trying different pieces and setups once the possibility of scoring the Championship was gone. Gordon will continue his new association with crew chief Steve Letarte and believes Letarte can return the DuPont Chevy to its normal place high in the Cup standings.

Youngster Brian Vickers returns in the Hendrick 25 car as well, and speaking to Vickers one comes away with the feeling that he realizes it’s time to start winning races. Vickers, a graduate of the Hooters Pro Cup series, had one of the best second-halves in ’05 of anyone in the Cup garage, but couldn’t quite close the deal for his first victory.

Vickers, too, thinks his team’s program will be strong enough to contend for a spot in the Chase come the new season.

Maybe the Hendrick driver facing the most pressure is Jimmie Johnson. The chauffeur of the Lowe’s 48 car has been oh-so-close to a title his first years in the Cup series, without yet getting to the top of the list. Jimmie is back with Chad Knaus atop the pit box, and they may be the most potent driver/crew chief pairing in the Cup series. Johnson faded to 5th in points in November, after appearing to have a great shot at the title in ’05. For Johnson, the 2006 campaign represents unfinished business.

The Hendrick group will also field two-time Nextel Cup champ Terry Labonte in his final roundup this coming season. Labonte will actually be a good bit busier than he’d initially planned, as he’ll open the year running the first five races in the new Hall of Fame/DLP HDTV Chevrolets. Then, the Corpus Christi native will run his final ten events for Hendrick in the #44 Kellogg’s car, while also driving the two Cup road course events for Hall of Fame. Labonte says he knows it’s time to wrap up his career and that he has no regrets. But the veteran also very much wants to close his Cup career with at least one more trip to Victory Lane. The odds are long, but one suspects Labonte will give it everything he’s got in a bid to taste the champagne one more time.

Thursday, the tour wraps up with a session highlighting the Craftsman Truck Series and time with the Richard Childress team.

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