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NASCAR Media Tour: Day 3

by Pete McCole
Friday, January 27, 2012

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The 30th Annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway continued on Wednesday with day three of the four-day session as NASCAR teams continue their preparations for the upcoming 2012 NASCAR racing season.

Starting off was an early-morning media event with JTG-Daugherty Racing and driver Bobby Labonte.

Coming off their third season in Sprint Cup and their first with Labonte, the team started off the season on the right foot, finishing fourth in the season-opening Daytona 500.

However, that finish would turn out to be the highlight of their 2011 campaign, as Labonte managed just one more top-10 finish during the season, ending up 29th in points at the end of the season.

Coming into 2012, JTG welcomes back Kroger as the team’s primary sponsor, and also announced the signing of Bubba Burger as a one-race primary sponsor for select races in 2012.

Despite this, JTG remains a single-car operation – a small fish in a pond filled with sharks – a daunting task for any team to overcome.

“It’s got its pros and cons,” said Labonte, the 2000 Sprint Cup Champion. “It’s definitely not going to be easy, but there are a lot of things that we can do as a small team that will make some differences. The great support of Toyota and their facility and what they give us is like being a part of a big organization. It’s just now that Tad (Geschickter, team owner), Jodi (Geschickter, team owner) and Brad (Daugherty, team owner) have to put the funding into it to make that happen.

“There are a lot of good things with that and I think that’s a plus for us. With a small group -- everybody has to pull their weight. I do believe there is a challenge for us, but at the same time we’ll have to hit everything right and if we do then we’ll have more success than not.”

Furniture Row
Rhonda McCole/AR1.com
Later in the morning the tour rolled on to a Furniture Row outlet store nearby in Concord, N.C., where the tour was hosted by the Furniture Row Racing team and driver Regan Smith.

2011 was a breakthrough year for Furniture Row Racing, as the team finally broke into the win column at the Southern 500 at Darlington, giving Smith his first career Sprint Cup victory

“We sat here last year talking to everyone and I said I felt like this team could win a race,” said Smith. “Some of you agreed with me and some of you looked at me like I had a third eye. But, at the end of day, I truly believed that. My win at Darlington helped elevate everyone’s confidence and we will continue to build on that success in 2012.”

Starting their eighth year in competition, the team has added two new sponsors in CSX Transportation and Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizers.

Based in Denver, Colo., the Furniture Row Racing team is one of the only NASCAR Sprint Cup teams not headquartered in or around North Carolina, which although poses a logistical challenge for the team, is seen as an advantage being so far removed from the competition.

“It’s a distraction,” being around so many other teams, said Competition Director Mark McArdle. “In Colorado we don’t have that, we don’t have any other race teams there. It’s a big difference, it changes our whole feeling in our shop – it’s different from what I’m been used to on a team that’s down here in the mix.

“One thing that we have in Colorado is that the local media calls us ‘Colorado’s team’. That’s something that can never happen if we were based in North Carolina.”

Hendrick Cars
Rhonda McCole/AR1.com
Next up on the tour was a visit to the racing shops of Hendrick Motorsports, where team owner Rick Hendrick was joined by drivers Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

2011 saw the end of  Johnson’s five-year reign as the Sprint Cup Champion -beat by a team that gets it’s chassis and engines from Hendrick Motorsports - while the three Hendrick teams that made the Chase didn’t even finish in the top five in the points standings.

For 2012, Hendrick has raised the stakes, looking for no less than all four teams to make the Chase and an 11th Sprint Cup title.

Rick Hendrick (R) speaks
Rhonda McCole/AR1.com
“I’m going to be really disappointed if we don’t have all four cars in the Chase and I’m going to be really disappointed if we don’t win the championship,” said “I can’t remember having four teams this solid, this strong, at the beginning of the year.

“I think we’re as prepared as we’ve ever been and if we don’t get it (the
championship) it's going to be our fault.”

Having been a perennial favorite to win the title for the last few years, 2011 was no exception for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Finishing atop the points standings in the regular season, Johnson was seeded fifth at the start of the Chase and was never able to claw his way back to the top. Although the team climbed as high as third, a DNF at Charlotte and a 26th-place showing at Talladega sealed their demise, and Johnson wound up a career-worst sixth in the standings.

Jimmie Johnson
Rhonda McCole/AR1.com
“I’ve lost championships before,” said Johnson, who had runner-up finished in 2003 and ’04. “This one wasn’t necessarily a tough loss because we were close, it’s a tough loss because I feel we had the equipment – we got beat by our own equipment by the 14 team. There is a good lesson in last year, and I know it’s going to make me stronger and the team stronger and hopefully we won’t make the same mistakes twice.

“Losing those championships before I won my first were very tough to deal with, but the thing about this championship that bothers me, is that I know we had the equipment to win the championship - we just didn’t execute. I said at start of last year that if we just get beat, I’d be fine with it. But I think we really beat ourselves this past season.”

Despite the disappointment of not winning the title, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. showed the most improvement of the four teams during the 2011 season.

After finishing an abysmal 21st in the standings in 2010, Earnhardt, Jr. enjoyed his best season in his four years at HMS. Although shut out of victory lane for the third straight year, the team made the Chase through consistent finishes, an accomplishment Earnhardt, Jr. credited to his new crew chief, Steve Letarte.

“I never really had anybody ask much of me as far a crew chief goes, other than be there with your helmet and ready to drive when its time to drive,” said Earnhardt, Jr. “He’s got expectations of me as a driver and things I need to do to make him a better crew chief and make us a better team. I don’t think I was reaching my full potential. He made me understand how those things that I thought were trivial are important to him and his ability to do his job.

“I always get asked ‘do I think we’re about to turn a corner?’ We came pretty close last year  - we had a pretty successful year and we hadn’t been there in the past. I feel closer to winning races, I feel like the potential is there, which is a good feeling, it gives me a lot of confidence. This year could be the year we get it done.”

The team was without their newest driver in their four-team stable, as Kasey Kahne was called to jury duty and was forced to miss the event.

Kahne spent a year at Red Bull Racing waiting for a seat to open up at HMS, a year that Hendrick himself said was worth the wait.

“We’re really excited to have Kasey Kahne join our organization,” said Hendrick. “They (Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis) fit in like a glove and we’re really excited to have them added to our organization.”

RCR
Rhonda McCole/AR1.com
Wrapping up the second-to-last day was a stop to Welcome, N.C. and the shops of Richard Childress Racing, where Sprint Cup drivers Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard were on hand to address the media.

After putting three of the teams four Sprint Cup cars into the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2010, RCR had only Harvick in the Chase field for 2011. With four victories under his belt, Harvick entered the Chase as the no. 1 seed, only to slip during the stretch to finish third in the title hunt for the second straight year.

Seeing that a change was needed, team owner Richard Childress moved Shane Wilson from the Nationwide team to call the shots for Harvick, while Drew Blickensderfer moves from Roush Racing to serve as crew chief for Burton.

“Anytime you change things, it brings excitement to everybody,” said Harvick. “Shane and I had a lot of success together on the Nationwide side. For us, the biggest key is to win races in the last ten (races of the season). That’s the part I feel is the most important for us to be a contender to win the championship is to put the races together so we can win in the last 10 weeks.”

RCR will field nine teams across NASCAR’s top three divisions – three Sprint Cup, the Nationwide Series and three Camping World Truck Series teams. They will also enter a fourth Sprint Cup car in the first five races of the season, starting with Elliott Sadler piloting the no. 33 at the season-opening race at Daytona.

RCR’s Nationwide field was bolstered by the acquisition of Kevin Harvick Inc.’s no. 2 Chevrolet after Harvick suddenly shuttered his truck series teams and merger his Nationwide operation with RCR.

On Wednesday, Harvick cleared up his reasons for shutting down his teams – his wife and team co-owner Delana Harvick are expecting their first child in July.

“I guess it all makes a lot more sense now,” said Harvick. “There were a lot of factors that went into the decision. When your wife tells you that she’s not starting a family unless you get out of the race team business, that’s a pretty big factor.

“You sit down and do your estate planning and it’s just you and her, there’s no one to carry on the things we sat there and built. And how important are a bunch of race cars 15 years down the road – not very. It kinda helped put a lot of things into perspective. As we move down the road and I’m done driving, we can always fire that back up again. 

Harvick was mum about the reason for the decision when first announced last September, leading to wild rumors about financial trouble and a pending divorce as being the reasons.

“That was very entertaining to see all the people that were buying into all the rumors,” said Harvick. “Now that the final piece of the puzzle is out, hopefully is all makes sense to everyone.”

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