SMI: SPECIAL MANAGERS INTELLIGENCE -- Tuesday night closed with the general managers from seven of the eight Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) tracks - Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Kentucky, Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Sonoma - taking the stage at Whisky River in downtown Charlotte. Texas Motor Speedway GM Eddie Gossage was unable to attend after his flight was canceled due to weather.
The highlight was a video package that was presented to attending media that featured SMI's version of CBS' hit TV show "Undercover Boss."
Last season, the GMs visited different SMI tracks, posing as regular customers.
"We did everything from buy tickets online to standing in line to buy hot dogs," said Marcus Smith, president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I thought it was an extremely beneficial program that I really enjoyed doing. It was informative and gave us some really good feedback on what we can do differently and better, but it was also a lot of fun."
The GMs also commented on the new possible changes to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying and Chase for the championship programs.
"I think it really adds to the Friday program," said Jerry Gappens, executive vice president and general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "One car going out at a time doesn't draw the fans in, especially new fans. This new qualifying format is going to bring in fans and add an excitement level to Friday that's never been seen before."
NEW FORMAT, SAME GOALS -- For Roush Fenway Racing, no matter the changes that NASCAR institutes -- in qualifying or the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup -- the team's goals remain the same, drivers said during the third day of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"We're going to go out and try to win every race and try to win the championship no matter what the format is," said Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Fastenal Ford. "I think the important thing for our sport, in my opinion, is to really decide, really, how we want to crown a champion. I grew up with it being, you know, the race is one thing and the season determines the champion and so it took me a long time to shift my thinking to the Chase format. And I guess this will change it by basically a factor of 10 if what I hear proposed is how we're going to do it. I think it'll be a major difference in how we crown a champion. If it's exciting and that's what people want, then that's what we have to do, but it's very different."
Edwards' teammate, Greg Biffle agreed.
"We all pull out on that racetrack to win because it's our pride," Biffle said, who drives the No. 16 3M Ford. "We don't try to finish third; we don't try to finish fifth; we try to win every week and we do what we can. And so I think we've got caught up in that. You get out of the car, you do the interview, you finish fourth. We had a good day. We finished fourth, top five finish, it was a good day in the points for us. I think people take that as, 'Well he's just points racing.' We try to win all of 'em, but you've got to find a positive in finishing fourth or fifth or a top 10. I know there's more emphasis on winning now. We're going to do the same as we've always done and try to win every race we show up at."
And it's not just the rumored changes to the Chase format that drivers will have to deal with in 2014. NASCAR's new rules for "knockout" qualifying will also pose new challenges on the track.
"I kind of imagine it's going to be similar to an exciting Indy qualifying session," said Stenhouse, driver of the No. 17 Nationwide Ford. "You're going to want the shade on the racetrack; you're going to want a clear racetrack, so I definitely think it's going to make it exciting. I know I enjoyed qualifying last year the way it was. This is going to be good for the fans. It's still going to be your first lap on a set of tires so you're still going to have one lap to get it done."
PETTY ON THE RISE -- With a potpourri of new and returning sponsors on board for 2014, Richard Petty Motorsports is in the best position it's been in to compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since it rebranded itself under the RPM name in 2010.
"I don't know that our year was that much better last year than it was (in 2012), but we were a lot more stable," said Richard Petty, co-owner of RPM. "Everyone knows we went to the bottom of the deal when our car owner went bankrupt or whatever a few years ago, and we got with a couple guys and bought the place out. We tried to get some foundation... We have a strong group of sponsorships coming on, and all the (sponsors) that have been there (with us) before stayed, so that's really good."
The increase in sponsorships has allowed RPM to work on its research and development to better prepare itself and become more competitive with the bigger race teams. That kind of competitive advantage, along with a forthcoming NASCAR rules change - that allows any driver with a regular-season win into the Chase for the championship - should benefit Marcos Ambrose, who enters his fourth season driving the No. 9 Ford for RPM.
"There's a real chance for us to make the Chase this year," said Ambrose, whose prowess at road courses will make him a favorite to win at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen. "But we need to have more consistency. You can't win a championship without consistency, so even if we're able to make it in we're going to have to be good every week to really contend. I feel like we're on the right path to do that."
Aric Almirola has yet to find victory lane in his first two full seasons with RPM. Driving the legendary No. 43 Ford, Almirola drives in the shadow of his boss. But while Almirola doesn't feel the pressure of piloting Petty's famed ride, he does know the importance of getting the 43 back into victory lane. And that starts with a strong sponsorship.
"Smithfield Foods, man, did they step up in a big way for us and our race team. The commitment they made to Richard Petty Motorsports and to me is just tremendous, and has allowed us to go out and hire more people, hire new people. We have a lot of momentum on our side," said Almirola, who announced on Wednesday that he'll have the Air Force on board for two races in 2014. "We started off really strong last season then faltered in this summer. We're not going to fall off this year."
The No. 43 will also run for RPM in the Nationwide Series. Dakoda Armstrong signed a multi-year deal at the beginning of December to drive the 43, and is thrilled for the opportunity after running six races for Richard Childress Racing in 2013.
"It's great to be with an organization like Richard Petty Motorsports," said the 22-year-old Armstrong. "Everything's been going really smooth so far. I think our communication is getting to where it needs to be and now it's about getting this season started."
McCLURE GETS DAYTONA 500 RIDE WITH FRONT ROW MOTORSPORTS -- NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Eric McClure said Wednesday that he will be behind the wheel of a third Front Row Motorsports car at the Daytona 500 and continue racing in the Nationwide Series for TriStar Motorsports.
"I've only recently been cleared to compete so a lot of dominoes are starting to fall into place," McClure told media during Wednesday's Ford announcements with Front Row Motorsports and Wood Brothers Racing. "The plan is the Daytona 500 for sure, Speedweeks, and hopefully we qualify."
While McClure was quick to admit running the Daytona 500 is something of a bucket list item, this isn't just a personal endeavor. McClure will drive the No. 35 Hefty Ford in Daytona.
"I have to stress that the Cup deal is not just, 'Oh Eric wants to go run a Cup race,' he said."Certainly as a driver I want to run this race. It's something I've wanted to my whole life but as representing our partners we have to find new opportunities to enhance their program. And certainly I've proven my career is coming down to an end, so we're trying to strategically find different opportunities for them to be involved in the sport."
RAGAN AND GILLILAND: RUMORED CHASE CHANGES COULD BENEFIT SMALL TEAMS -- As Front Row Motorsports took the spotlight alongside Wood Brothers Racing Wednesday, Front Row drivers David Gilliland and David Ragan expressed optimism about how their team could compete if rumored changes to the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"I think that we've got to continue to evolve our sport based on the fans that we have in the world as it changes," said Ragan, who drives the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford. "The fundamental parts are always going to be there. You're going to have 43 cars you've got to go and race, and the best guy is going to win. But I'm excited about the upcoming season, the possible changes. I think that it definitely fits into our favor as a smaller team trying to grow in this world. It's a big benefit if we can be in the Chase, for our sponsors, for our team, for everyone. I think it's a good thing to help everybody grow."
Looking at last year's successes, Gilliland summed up how big an impact the rumored changes could be for Front Row Motorsports.
"I think they said with David (Ragan) winning at Talladega last year, if the points were the exact same this year, he possibly would have made (the Chase)," Gilliland said. "That'd be a huge shot for Front Row Motorsports, so that's kind of what we're focusing on all the while keeping focus on getting our whole team elevated to run better each and every week."
BAYNE FINDING BALANCE -- Trevor Bayne has had his ups and downs on and off the track with Wood Brothers Racing, but through it all, including a Daytona 500 win and being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he's kept an even keel.
"It is a diagnosis, but to me it has not changed my way of life or any daily activities or anything like that so for me that's all it has to be right now is a diagnosis," Bayne said of learning to live with MS. "It changes one thing about your mindset... you appreciate every day and you make the best of it."
In 2014, Bayne finds himself splitting time between a full-time Nationwide Series ride with Roush Fenway Racing and 20 Sprint Cup Series races with Wood Brothers Racing.
Racing in each series presents a unique challenge, Bayne said.
"As far as how I race, I think I'm all-out all the time and I think most people would agree," Bayne said. "But the thing is I am racing for points in Nationwide, so you're cautious. But in the Cup Series I'm cautious because there are other guys racing for points and I don't want to be the guy that shows up once every three weeks and causes chaos for the guy that's running for a championship or could contend to be in the Chase."
CHANGE IS GOOD --For one, it's about finding a way to take the next step up the mountain. For the other, it's about how to get back on top. That's the best way to describe the outlook in 2014 for Penske Racing's Joey Logano and 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski.
In his first season driving the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford for Penske, Logano finished with 19 top-10s, including 11 top-fives and a victory. Those numbers were good enough for him to make the Chase for the first time in his career. He went on to finish a respectable eighth, finishing no worse than 18th over the final 10 races. But with impending changes coming to NASCAR premier series playoff, Logano knows he's going to have to adapt to the alterations or it will be a step backward.
"I think it's great. You're going to have a Richmond (the last race of the regular season) scenario within the Chase, almost a make it or break it every three races," said Logano, noting NASCAR's potential elimination Chase system. "There's going to be some really desperate drivers taking chances and I think that's great for the fans. It's going to add a lot of drama."
Dramatic changes were made within the middle ranks of Team Penske when it comes to the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford. The Blue Deuce's consistent mechanical failures and gaffes on pit road were costly in 2013, enough to keep the 2012 champion from defending his title.
"We weren't where we needed to be last year," said Keselowski. "But we've revamped our pit crew and made some changes internally, at the shop, and now it's up to me as a driver to capitalize on these positive changes."
"We had some reliability problems and it just wasn't as smooth as 2012," said team owner Roger Penske. "But look, it's racing and you're not going to win every year. When it comes to Brad, he's got it as a driver. He's been to the top. Now we just have to give him better tools to get there.
"Our goal as a team is no different than anyone else. We want to be at that head table at the end of the 2014 season."
That's also the goal for Ryan Blaney. The 20-year-old will run a more expanded schedule, piloting the Ford Mustang in 15 NASCAR Nationwide Series races for Team Penske this season. On top of his Camping World Truck Series schedule, he will also make his debut in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, running at least two events behind the wheel of the No. 12 SKF Ford, the first coming at Kansas Speedway on May 10.
"It just makes me feel really good to have people trust me to make my first Cup start, and do all these Nationwide races to try and win that Owner's Championship," said Blaney. "We've really improved our relationship with Ford, across the board, so I'm truly excited to get this season going."
QUOTE OF THE DAY --"He's always the first one in the window and the last one to leave. Whether that's a good thing or not, it's always helpful. You need that and it makes me push harder and be that much better."
Ryan Blaney, on his father, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dave Blaney