Wood Brothers/JTG Racing shop
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
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.
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
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.