Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota team
Hard to believe, but the new season is upon
us. The first media lunches have been eaten, the first goody
bags claimed, and the first NASCAR team to proclaim itself
ready to win a title has been heard from. In short, the 2007
NASCAR Nextel Cup Media Tour officially opened this morning
in Concord, NC, just a chip shot from Lowe’s Motor Speedway
and the epicenter of big-league stock car racing.
The Media Tour (its unofficial name) is
kicking off its 24th annual run; this marks my 12th
consecutive trip on the event organized by the LMS staff and
their leader, H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler. It’s a January gathering
of the broadcast, print, and now web media that cover racing
world-wide. Today’s tour was an opportunity to hear from a
couple of key Nextel Cup squads, both with Chase aspirations
but both of which have major questions to answer once the
Daytona 500 arrives.
Brian France and Mike Helton address the media
But the major news of the day was made by
the sanctioning body. NASCAR has traditionally used the
first day of the tour these past several years to provide a
scene-set, a state-of-the-sport session that brings together
Brian France, Mike Helton, Jim Hunter, John Darby, and other
key personnel who run the Cup series. Today, NASCAR made
official a spate of changes to the Chase for the Nextel Cup,
the series’ 10-race “playoff” which decides the Cup
NASCAR has reacted to some criticism and perhaps some
softness in TV ratings last year by expanding the Chase
field to the top 12 point drivers after the year’s first 26
races. The cutoff again will come after the second race of
the season at Richmond International Raceway in September.
The series will also award 5 additional points to each
winner all season long, meaning a victory is worth as much
as 195 points if the winner also leads the most laps.
But the biggest change is the move to reseed the Chase
drivers based on the number of wins in the first 26 events,
a bid to put a lot more emphasis on winning, as opposed to
“points racing”. Now, the top 12 will each receive 5000
points at the start of the Chase, plus 10 bonus points per
victory in the first 26 races. That system would have put
Tony Stewart in the Chase solidly last season, and most
startlingly, would have put Kasey Kahne on top of the
standings thanks to his 5 victories in the “regular season”.
Last year, under the old system, Kahne was 10th going into
the Chase and never really emerged as a contender.
NASCAR Chair Brian France got everyone’s attention when he
noted he really didn’t like hearing a driver climb out of
his car at the end of 500 miles to say “I’m really happy
with my 8th place finish today”….wanting instead to see and
hear drivers battle harder for checkered flags. Hard to
argue with that reasoning.
NASCAR official, David Hickey, demonstrates the chassis approval process
for media members
NASCAR also showed off the latest versions
of its “Car of Tomorrow”, which begins competition at
Bristol this spring. The new COTs from Dodge, Chevy, Ford
and Toyota bear a much stronger resemblance to their street
versions, but the new-silhouette machines will still require
some getting used to. NASCAR is using an RFID-measurement
system on each COT chassis. 120 have been approved so far.
Nine chips are attached to each chassis at specific points
and the sanctioning body has chip-reading technology in
place to ensure each is as close to identical as possible.
NASCAR R&D staff including Robin Pemberton, Brett Bodine,
and Steve Peterson still say teams will be able to use one
car at most tracks under the new rules; it remains to be
seen how many Cup teams will take advantage of the
opportunity to save money.
Rear wings and front splitters will remain
adjustable, at least for now, within NASCAR parameters.
Maybe the most interesting thing I saw, and the newest, was
the advent of a couple of wing end-plate options. Besides
the standard flat plate, NASCAR has developed a
teardrop-shaped plate that can be run singly or in pairs to
adjust the car’s rear side-force…one way to loosen or
tighten the car, depending on the track.
Ganassi Team. Note Montoya's shirt. Can you
imagine if he did that while posing for Ron Dennis and the McLaren team?
We also got our first look at Juan Pablo
Montoya in Ganassi-Sabates shop livery, and the former Indy
winner was enthusiastic about his prospects in the Texaco
Dodges this season. His talent is undeniable, and some were
noting his reputation for being a hard-nosed driver, which
should help him here. But I’m still not convinced he’s ready
for the 40-week grind of the Cup tour. We shall see.
The new Ginn Racing group led off the Tour,
hosting the kickoff lunch. And the event offered the day’s
other strange site…Mark Martin dressed in something other
than Roush Racing attire. Mark will no doubt help the former
MB2 team gain ground on the pack, something they badly need.
The new Bobby Ginn ownership should provide
all the resources Jay Frye and his team need to build a
contender. With a brain trust that includes Ryan Pemberton
and now former championship crew chief Gary DeHart, the
potential for race wins is there. Ginn spoke first, assuring
us he’s in for the long haul, and committing to adding a Cup
team next season to become a four-car stable. In 2007, Ginn
Racing will run in Cup, the Busch series, and the Truck
series, plus provide seat time for development drivers
including Kraig Kinser and Ricky Carmichael. That will mean
plenty of work for the dozens of Ginn staffers at their new
Tomorrow we’ll hear from Robert Yates, and
get a visit to Richard Childress Racing and Petty
Enterprises. It’ll be a treat to hear how three of the
sport’s legacy teams plan to attack the 2007 season. We will
keep you posted.
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