|Defending champion Jimmie Johnson|
The 32nd annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway continued on Tuesday with the second of four days of press events and presentations leading up to the season opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 23.
Day two of the media tour saw Chevrolet in the spotlight, featuring four of the manufacturer’s top teams, including the championship-winning team of Hendrick Motorsports.
Leading off the day of the tour was Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates, who celebrate the 25th year competition in 2014, although Ganassi himself was not present for the event while attending an IndyCar owners meeting in St. Petersburg, Fla.
While Ganassi enjoyed remarkable success with his IndyCar operation with Scott Dixon delivering the team their sixth IndyCar title, Ganassi’s NASCAR operation continued to struggle. Although the team made it to victory lane in Talladega with driver Jamie McMurray, both teams missed out on the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and finally parted ways with driver Juan Pablo Montoya at the end of the season.
“Last year was not up to what we expected," said Sabates. “We did win a race. We didn’t kill each other, so we’re still here."
Among the changes at Ganassi for 2014 is the addition of rookie Kyle Larson in place of Montoya in the no. 42 Chevrolet. The team also ended their six-year partnership with Teresa Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt, Inc., reverting back to their original moniker.
“The best part about this year, for me, personally," said Sabates. “My name is bigger again in the logo."
Jamie McMurray will continue to wheel the no.1 Chevrolet for Ganassi, marking his ninth year with the organization
McMurray has made his mark in the organizations storied history, starting his career with Ganassi back in 2002 where his won his first race in juts his second Cup start. After a four-year stint with Roush, McMurray returned to Ganassi in 2010 and earned the team their first Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 victories.
“We’ve been through a lot together," said McMurray of his relationship with Chip. “Really, since coming back in 2010, I’ve matured a lot since my first year in Cup, and that’s what an owner like Chip wants."
More recently, McMurray competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona alongside the rest of Ganassi’s drivers, getting to know his new teammate, Kyle Larson.
“It was really good for us, because you get to spend a lot of time together," said McMurray. “We’re all laughing a having a good time this is what makes (the Rolex 24) so much fun. It’s fun to race these cars and it’s a great event, but the interaction with all of the other teammate at Ganassi – you don’t get to have that at a media day or a sponsor event, it’s really laid back and that was good for Kyle and I."
Larson has already made an impression in his young racing career, winning the 2012 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title and the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year, garnering praise from drivers such as Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon
It means a lot to me to be recognized by those drivers that I’ve looked up to since I was a toddler," sad Larson. “Especially that they’ve paid attention to me during the time I was racing sprint cars and midgets, and now that I’m here, I try not to pay a whole lot of attention to it just because I don’t want to get to my head or add any pressure on myself.
“I like setting realistic goals, I just want to be competitive, consistent and finish in the top 15 and hopefully make the Chase at the end of the year. I definitely think we can win the Rookie of the Year. I’m not going to say I’m going to go win a bunch or races this year because it’s probably not going to happen,"
Concluding the morning session was a visit with Richard Childress Racing, who welcomed the media with their new driver lineup of Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman joining veteran RCR driver Paul Menard for the 2014 season.
After capturing the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series titles, it was only logical that Austin Dillon would find himself in a Sprint Cup ride in 2014, the only unanswered question was what number he would use.
Since Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, team owner Richard Childress declined to use the famed no. 3 for his Sprint Cup operation, instead going with the no. 29 for Earnhardt’s former team.
However, Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon campaigned the number throughout his young racing career, including his stints in the trucks and Nationwide Series.
Having said all along he would only consider using the number again for a member of the Earnhardt family or his own family, Childress decided it was time to bring the number “3" back to Sprint Cup.
The decision (to bring the 3 back) was actually made 14 years ago when Dale and I were talking abut his retirement and how he wanted to help me with the 3 and with the team – to go out and put a driver in that car that could win races and win championships," said Childress. “It was not in the plans at all to put anybody in the car until it as the right person – it would be an Earnhardt or one of my family would get in that 3 car.
“I’ve been watching the ‘3’ run with Austin and Ty – both in the Nationwide and the truck series. It’s been special. It’s going to be really neat to see it out there that morning when I walk out onto pit road for the Daytona 500.
Dillon him understands the pressure that come with driving the famous number and that not everyone will be pleased, but points out he and Childress have the full support from Dale Earnhardt’s family.
“I’ve heard a lot of good feedback from the fans….wondering if this was ever going to happen," said Dillon. “This number has a lot of history, and that’s what our sport is built off of is family and history and I think this is a great opportunity for all of our sport to enjoy seeing this number back on the track.
“Dale Jr. has been supportive the whole time, he’s excited about it. That was one person I needed to talk to, and having the support from the right people has been important to us."
Joining RCR this season is veteran driver Ryan Newman, who parted ways with Stewart-Haas Racing to take over the no. 31 Chevrolet, replacing Jeff Burton.
After helping Stewart essentially build a brand new race team at SHR, Newman looked forward to the opportunity to be more of a role as a driver of a proven team.
“For me, this is a much better situation," said Newman. “At Stewart-Haas, we put together a team that was un-established – we had guys on our team that had never been in a NASCAR garage before. I’m in a much better situation as far as experience goes…I’m in a more experienced team and role than I was in a year ago at this time.
“I’m the plug-and-play person. We’re not building a whole new team, a whole new organization. They just swapped out the nut behind the wheel. There’s less stress because of that."
Leading off the afternoon session was a session with one of the few race teams not based in the nearby Charlotte area – the Denver, Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing and driver Martin Truex, Jr.
Following a year-long stint with Kurt Busch behind the wheel of the no. 78 Chevrolet, team owner Barney Visser brought in Truex to wheel the car for the 2014 season – the third driver in three years for the team.
Truex himself was not in attendance in person during Tuesday’s event, instead joining in via Skype from an already-planned family vacation in Anguilla.
“Look behind me," Truex said from his beachfront chair as a drink was delivered to him. “It’s not snowing and I’m pretty damn happy.
“After all the things that happened last year I couldn’t be more pleased with how things have worked out in the offseason."
Truex, of course, was happy to land with any team – after watching his future at Michael Waltrip Racing unravel before his eyes just as the Chase for the Sprint Cup began last season.
“I really enjoyed my time at MWR, and all the things we did there together. We were able to build that organization up to a championship-contending team, and that was a lot of fun. I really honestly hated they way that ended," said Truex. “Just being able to get away from it and start over and try to forget about all the bad things that happened, because there was so many good things that happened there in the four years that I spent, being able to get away and forget about them and start over with a new team is definitely something that’s been a good thing for me
“This team is such a close, tight-knit group of guys and they’ve come so far as a race team. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to being a part of that, trying to help them grow to the next level I hope I can bring some thing to the team that maybe they haven’t seen before."
Day two of the media tour concluded with Hendrick Motorsports and their returning driver lineup of Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and reigning Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson scored an historic milestone in 2013, winning his sixth Sprint Cup title, leaving him just one short of the record seven titles held by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
Among the topics being discussed this week are a new aerodynamic rules package, a new “knockout" qualifying procedure as well as proposed changes NASCAR could implement in the championship point system, including a major shake up in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – NASCAR’s innovation to add a “playoff" atmosphere to the championship battle.
The proposed changes have lead to speculation that NASCAR is specifically changing the rules to prevent declines in television ratings another runaway championship run from Johnson, a supposition Johnson himself doesn’t buy into.
“I don’t think that I’m the reason that things have declined in our sport or why our viewership numbers are down, and I don’t think that NASCAR is picking on me, trying to keep me from winning a championship. I really don’t," said Johnson. “In conversations I’ve had with (NASCAR chairman) Brian (France) and various NASCAR executives, NASCAR likes history being made, they like those big monumental moments
“I by no means see this as an attack on the 48, I don’t think they’re lying awake at night wondering how they can keep the 48 from winning."
Rick Hendrick himself sees the proposed changes as a positive sign of growth for the sport, having studied the rise and fall of companies that stagnated and failed.
“I don’t study companies that are successful, I study companies that fail. Companies don’t fail – leaders do," said Hendrick. “You look at Kodak, you look at Blockbuster (Video), they failed because they didn’t change with the times.
“I hate change, because you get into a comfort zone, you think ‘we did it this way for 20 years, so why change it?’, but the answer to that is – everything changes. Whatever changes come, we have to be ready to adapt. The people who accept it and don’t get caught up in it, they’re the ones who come out ahead in the long run."
Earnhardt, Jr. was the first to admit he was resistant to the changes, but says ultimately the new idea could be as fun for the drivers as they will be for the fans.
“I wasn’t really excited about change that much up until a lot of change started happening and you kind of had to get used to it, now, let’s change it all!" joked Earnhardt, Jr. “I’m all for it. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for the drivers, too – a lot of times we change things for the fans and I think the drivers are going enjoy it just as much as the fans will."