Editorial

View from the Topside
NASCAR Media Tour Day1

   by Rick Benjamin
January 22, 2007

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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 champion.

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.


Ginn Racing

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 headquarters.

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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