2011 NASCAR Media Tour: Day 3

Regan Smith
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The 29th annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway rolled along on Wednesday with Day Three of the four-day event, featuring visits with Richard Petty Motorsports and Hendrick Motorsports.

Leading off the day was a first-of-its-kind press event for the tour, as hundreds of media members visited a new Furniture Row retail store near Concord, N.C. for a press event with Furniture Row Racing.

Based in Furniture Row owner Barney Visser’s hometown of Denver, Colo., Furniture Row Racing is far removed from most of the NASCAR race teams that make their home in the Charlotte area. A single-car team with a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, Furniture Row Racing plans on running the full season again in 2011 with Regan Smith returning to drive the no. 78 Chevrolet.

Smith, the 2008 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year, managed to qualify for all 35 events in 2010, posting a season-best finish of 12th in two races, ending the season 28th in points, which guarantees the team a spot in the first five races of the 2011 season.

“From my standpoint and the team’s standpoint, if we can continue to build on the way we finished last year, that is what our goals are," said Smith. “We want to make the same level of progression this year and step up. I think the team can run in the top 10 consistently. That’s exciting for us. I have been here three years now and saw where we came from to where it is today. It’s been a lot of hard work, I know. It’s been kind of neat to see this whole program grow."

AJ Allmendinger, Richard Petty and Marcos Ambrose
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Up next for the tour was an event with Richard Petty Motorsports and Ford Racing,

After running a four-car stable in 2010, RPM has been pared down to two teams, bringing back A.J. Allmendinger to drive the iconic no. 43 and adding Australian driver Marcos Ambrose to replace the departing Kasey Kahne in the no. 9 Ford Fusion.

2010 will be best remember as one of the most trying years in the history of Richard Petty Motorsports. After struggling financially in 2008, Petty merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in 2009 and then merged again with Yates Racing in 2010.

While struggling to keep the team afloat in the face of the global economic crisis, the team floundered on the race track, posting no victories and missing out on the Chase.

As the teams financial woes continued, some speculated that RPM could close it’s doors any day, but late in the season, Petty himself re-acquired control of the team with the help of two investment companies – Medallion Financial Corp. and DGB Investments – and is once again assuming day-to-day operation of the team.

“We had a pretty rough time last year," Petty said, “but everybody stayed with us. The sponsors stayed with us through the winter and came back on board for the new season. I have to give our crew a lot of credit. For the last five or six races, they didn’t know if they were going to have a job the next week, but they stepped it up, the drivers stepped it up, and we ended up with a pretty good season.

“The last five weeks of the season, it was Wednesday before we even knew if we were going to be able to go to the racetrack. And that was five races we had to piece together. It was beg, borrow and steal to get to the next race. While we were piecing that together, we were also taking to medallion and talking to other investors about the 2011 season. It all worked out, and here we are ready to start again."

Rick Hendrick and his 4 drivers
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Hendrick Motorsports was next up on the tour, as the team rolls into 2011 with the returning driver lineup of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Mark Martin

2010 ended up a high note for the team, with Jimmie Johnson staging a late season comeback to win a fifth-straight Sprint Cup title, but at the mid-season point, it had looked as though the magic the team found in 2009 was gone.

After Johnson, Martin and Gordon finished 1-2-3 in points in 2009 with a combined 13 victories, Martin and Gordon were shutout in 2010. Although Johnson and Gordon made Chase for the Sprint Cup, Martin missed the cut.

To try and light a fire under his teams in 2011, team owner Rick Hendrick swapped crew chiefs among three of his teams, with Earnhardt’s crew chief Lance McGrew going to Mark Martin’s team while Martin’s crew chief Alan Gustafson going with Jeff Gordon. Gordon’s former crew chief, Steve Letarte with now turn the wrenches on Earnhardt, Jr.’s no. 88 Chevrolet.

“We needed to something to stimulate us, and we needed a reason to get excited about this year, and more than that, I felt like the matchups were the best that would help us all," said Hendrick. “When you just rotate the seats, and everything else stays the same, it fires up everybody because it put everybody on point. We were behind in a lot of areas, so we had to catch up. I could feel it toward the end of the year that we were gaining in some areas where we were behind.

“All I can tell you I’m determined to every year to try to make each team as good as they can be. I feel real good about these changes, but can I guarantee you that I’ll have four cars in the chase? I guarantee you that if we don’t I’ll keep working on it, that’s all I can say."

As the 10th anniversary of the passing of Dale Earnhardt approaches on Feb. 18, perhaps no one is more cognizant of the date than Earnhardt, Jr., who finished second behind Michael Waltrip in his father’s final race.

Amidst all the tributes and ceremonies planned to honor the late seven-time champion on the anniversary, Earnhardt, Jr. hopes the focus is on his father and his accomplishments, and not on himself.

“Everyone knows what he was to the sport, and what’s important to me that he is remembered for what he was on and off the track. I has nothing to do with me, it shouldn’t have anything to do with me," said Earnhardt. Jr. “It’s about his life, with the anniversary coming up, it should be about him. I understand my connection to him, I understand that I should be able shed some kind of light on what the day or how it make me feel, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is what he was and who he was on the track. I want it to be as great as it can for him.

“I just want to stand on the sideline and appreciate the day, appreciate the anniversary appreciate his life and watch him be honored. I will enjoy that. I would like to just stand in the sideline and watch it go by."

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