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NASCAR Media Tour: Day 1

by Pete McCole
Tuesday, January 24, 2012

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Tony Stewart (center) and his team
Rhonda McCole/AR1.com
Charlotte Motor Speedway played host to the 30th edition of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour on Monday, kicking off the annual event that brings together journalists from around the world featuring a four days of interviews and press events with some of NASCAR’s top teams as the prepare for the upcoming 2012 racing season.

Leading of the tour for 2012 was a visit from the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart and the Stewart-Haas Racing team.

The champ himself was on hand to host the event, which featured Stewart-Haas Racing’s newest team member, Danica Patrick.

Stewart finished off 2011 by winning his third Sprint Cup title, leading Stewart-Haas Racing to their first title a just three years after taking over as part owner of the team, making Stewart the first driver/owner to win the title since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

Although any defending champ is always considered a favorite to make a repeat run at the title, Stewart says such early predictions are impossible to make.

“I would never even worry about it at the beginning of the year,” said Stewart. “I think our season last year was proof that you’re throwing darts at a dartboard right now if you’re trying to predict who’s gonna win the championship this early.

“The way our season went last year, 11 races from the end of the year I was like ‘we’re wasting our time here’ and then all of the sudden we got on a roll, I don’t think you can predict anybody right now.”

After splitting her time between the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2011, Danica Patrick will leave IndyCar compete full-time in the NNS in 2012 with JR Motorsports in addition to a limited schedule in the Sprint Cup Series driving for Stewart-Haas.

“When I had a ‘dream team’ in mind about what I thought would work well in my situation both from a business perspective as well as the people involved and the friendship that Tony and I have had over the last few years, I just thought it would be a positive environment, it would be a lot of fun and I’ve found the more fun I have having – the better I perform on the racetrack so this is a dream scenario,” said Patrick.

During the press event on Monday, Patrick announced she would attempt to run in the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day Weekend, and would not compete in the Indianapolis 500.

“I’m not going to do the (Indianapolis) 500,” said Patrick. “After a lot of conversation, it’s just going to be the Coca-Cola 600.

“(Running the Indy 500) just didn’t work out as far as the business side of things, it just didn’t work out. I’m hopeful to do it in the future, but for this year it just didn’t happen.”

Joe Gibbs Racing
Rhonda McCole/AR1.com
Next up was Joe Gibbs Racing, and their returning driver lineup of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

A championship contending team just a year ago, 2011 turned out to be a season the entire organization would rather soon forget.

Coming into the season looking for redemption after finishing runner up in the title hunt in 2010, Hamlin and his team struggled just to stay in the hunt to make it into the Chase field. The team notched just one win and five top-fives, just barely cracking the top-10 in points near the mid-way point of the season before eventually squeaking into the Chase as a wild card.

It was all downhill for there, as Hamlin tumbled to 12th in the standing before rallying to finish where he started – ninth.

At the end of the season, crew chief Mike Ford was out, and Darien Grubb – Tony Stewart’s championship-winning crew chief – was in.

“I actually talked to Tony (Stewart) before we got Darien,” said Hamlin. “(He said) I think he needs to work with you – you’re perfect together, you have the same personality. I think Tony knows me pretty well, and I feel like that Tony and Darien had a lot of success, and for (Tony) to be the guy to say that this could work out great, that’s great motivation for myself.

“I think you need a season of getting your ass kicked, for people to wake up and realize that we’re not a good as we thought we were. You work harder when you get beat up, not only the team but also the driver. When you feel like your cars aren’t as good, that forces you as a driver to get better – you gotta make up for it. When you don’t have the best of everything, it makes you be a better driver.”

If any one word could describe Kyle Busch’s 2012 season, it would be controversy. No matter what Busch did on or off the track, there was always some kind of incident hanging over Busch like a dark cloud.

Although Busch and his team posted four wins, stayed in the top five in points for 19 of the season’s first 26 weeks and entered the Chase as the number one seed, Busch’s actions on and off the track led to yet another late-season collapse.

Busch’s intentional punt of Ron Hornaday during the truck series race last November earned Busch a one-race suspension that was more like a mercy killing, dropping Busch to 12th in the points – dead-last among the Chase contenders – and gave him the entire off-season to think about what could have been, and how he might find himself out of a ride if he steps out of line again.

“Darrell Waltrip said it the best the other night – he didn’t take the path of least resistance, he took the path that no one else was on. I’m the same way,” said Busch. “It’s different, it’s fun, it’s out there. Sometimes people love it, other times people chastise you for it. There’s definitely a balance there for me.

“I have fans tell me all the time they don’t want to see me change, they don’t want to see a different Kyle Busch. I’ve tried to keep that, but ultimately it doesn’t work - if you keep getting in trouble, you’re not going to be here very long, so for me, I need to change something.”

Despite late-season rumors of his ouster from the team, Joey Logano returns to JGR in 2012 with a new crew chief in Jason Ratcliff replacing the departing Greg Zipadelli.

Logano will be looking to improve upon his finish from 2011, where he ended up 21st, only marginally better than 2010. Coming into the final year of his contact with JGR, 2012 could be a make-or-break season for Logano.

“I don’t make anything of it.  It’s no difference to me,” said Logano of his contract status. “You should treat every year like it’s a make it or break it year.  So, what’s the difference?  That’s how I look at it.  I should go out there and try to win every race, whether it’s contract year or not.  There’s no difference there for me.

“In this sport, one good weekend can change it around, and all the sudden you feel like you’re on top of the world. You have to find a way, no matter what happens, to be confident in yourself. Even if you make a mistake, realize you made a mistake, learn from it, and still be confident in yourself that you’re here for a reason and that you can go out there and win races.”

Michael Waltrip Racing
Rhonda McCole/AR1.com
Opening day wrapped up with a visit to the shops of Michael Waltrip Racing, who introduced their new driver lineup with Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin joining incumbent driver Martin Truex, Jr.

Breaking from the normal press conference protocol, Waltrip turned the media event into a talk show hosted by himself – complete with a guest couch for his three drivers.

In 2012, MWR will enjoy a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, who shuttered their own engine department and will receive their engines from Toyota Racing Development 

“If you look where we are today – we’re going to have the same engines as (Joe) Gibbs (Racing), we couldn’t say that a year ago,” said Waltrip. “Our aerodynamics have improved to where our cars are as good as theirs, we couldn’t say that a year ago.

“I love our driver lineup. Just looking at the numbers, we have more wins and more Chase appearances than we’ve ever had before. Everything is pointing at us having a banner 2012 season. I’m confident in that – and I couldn’t have said that a year ago.”

53-year-old Mark Martin moves into the seat held last year by David Reutimann in the newly re-numbered no. 55 Toyota Camry. Martin will run 25 races in 2012, while Waltrip and an as-yet-unnamed driver to run the rest of the schedule.

Bowyer joins MWR after a six-year stint at Richard Childress Racing, where he won two Nationwide Series title before moving up to the Cup Series in 2006.

Bowyer and RCR were unable to work out a deal to keep him in the Childress stable during the 2011 season, leaving Bowyer to look for a fresh start at MWR.

“When I started at RCR, there was nothing to prove there. It had already been proven hundreds of times over,” said Bowyer. “Richard (Childress) won many championships, a hundred races, and I was happy to be a part of that. Here, I’m going to have to be a part the process of building this team into a championship-caliber organization. That’s a challenge that I’m looking forward too. 

“This is a new chapter in my career and in my life. This is a new opportunity to prove myself all over again, and I aim to do just that.” 

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