WELCOME TO THE SHOW -- NASCAR President Mike Helton dropped the green flag on the 32nd annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour, welcoming everyone to the event during a lunch inside the Great Hall at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in downtown Charlotte. Helton noted that the excitement level for this season is ramping up and that with just three weeks until the green flag drops on the 2014 season, the anticipation is only going to increase.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon joined Helton on the stage to kick off the festivities. Each spoke of the economic impact of NASCAR and the great pride the Tar Heel state takes in a sport that headquarters over 90 percent of all NASCAR teams within 50 miles of Charlotte.
"We love NASCAR and are looking forward to the upcoming season," said Gov. McCrory.
The lunch concluded with Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and Charlotte Motor Speedway, presenting Gov. McCrory and Mayor Cannon each with the rear bumper of a race car. Each back-end panel had the governor and mayor's title and name on the top with yellow rookie stripes across the bottom. Smith was hoping they'd hang the panels in their respective offices.
Gov. McCrory is in his second year as North Carolina’s head of state, while Mayor Cannon is in his first year, having been elected back in November of 2013.
"Maybe we can get the Governor’s rookie stripes removed?" joked Smith.
TRANSITION HAS GONE SMOOTHLY AT STEWART-HAAS -- A newly expanded four-car team of Stewart-Haas Racing kicked off the team programming at the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway Monday with a lot of positive thoughts about everything the new season will bring.
Co-owner Gene Haas said the transition of adding both Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch has gone well.
“It’s actually gone better than expected,” he said. “I was at the shop today and there was actually quite a bit of enthusiasm for it, pleasantly surprised. A lot of people have patted me on the back and said that it was a good decision and that always feels good.”
Co-owner Tony Stewart is also eager to get back behind the wheel after an injury cut his 2013 season short. His recovery is on schedule for a 2014 return in Daytona.
“I feel great,” he said. “I’m excited. I’m counting down days to get to Daytona. I’m excited to be here, feeling a lot better every day and you know like Gene said the fact that the environment is so great at the shop right now, everybody is so excited. You know there’s been a lot going on like Gene mentioned to get where we are and we’re on schedule so that’s a great thing. And like you said just seeing everybody so excited I think that takes away all the stuff going on the physical side and makes us real excited to get started again.”
Both Harvick and Busch said they were excited about 2014 and building strong programs under the Stewart-Haas banner.
“It’s been a lot of fun for me,” Harvick said. “You know I think hearing Gene talk about the enthusiasm in the shop it’s really contagious at this point, to tell you the truth. You can walk through the shop and everybody is so excited with all the change and new drivers and things that are going on. I think we’ve had three really good tests and everything has gone really smooth. I’m excited to get to the racetrack and start racing.”
“It’s just a matter of pacing ourselves and building on the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevy to the point to where we are Chase caliber and ready to attack those final 10 races as a championship team,” he said. “But we have to build this team up and get all of our foundation set. I can’t thank Gene and Tony enough for this opportunity to be part of a championship caliber team and to build on that foundation.”
Now in her second year in the No. 10 Go Daddy Chevrolet, Danica Patrick said with so many changes in the off-season for her team, she still feels like a rookie.
I think that for me being only my second year it’s nice to have things consistent. It helps us be able to build on last year. At the end of the day I have the most amount to learn and I’d say it almost feels like another rookie season, having Kevin (Harvick) and Kurt (Busch) and all the new people, just a bigger team. It almost feels kind of like I’m a rookie again.”
Many of NASCAR’s most drivers will feel like rookies as they learn to adjust to the new “knockout” style qualifying, but Stewart sees the changes as exciting for drivers and fans.
“I think it’s an exciting time for us and I’m excited that NASCAR is thinking outside the box,” Stewart said. “They don’t sit on their hands and say what we have is good enough. They’ve always trying to figure out how to make it better. The qualifying format is a perfect example and what they’re talking about doing for the Chase is a great example as well. It’s exciting for us as drivers to know what we’ve got a sanctioning body that you know is forward thinking and thinking outside the box and not scared to make changes.”
SMALL TEAMS, BIG GOALS -- One will race full-time, while the other will race part-time. But whether it’s a 36-race or 20-race schedule, JTG Daugherty Racing and Leavine Family Racing have lofty aspirations for the 2014 season.
JTG Daugherty Racing is looking to mimic the success of Furniture Row Motorsports in 2013, when Kurt Busch raced the one-car team into the Chase for the championship, the first one-car in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history to do so. Furniture Row aligned itself with Richard Childress Racing, using RCR engines, something JTG Daugherty Racing will do in 2014, which means switching from Toyota to Chevrolet.
“The last several seasons we were trying to figure out the best way to improve our race team. We didn’t have the success and everything that we wanted, but within our four walls we feel that we’re a top-20 race team not a 30th-place race team like we were last year,” said Brad Daugherty, who co-owns the team along with Tad and Jodi Geschickter. “We looked at the best fit for us and Richard Childress gave us that.”
As does adding AJ Allmendinger, who, like Busch, is hoping to hit the refresh button on a career that was sidetracked due to personal/off-track issues. Allmendinger was suspended for failing a random drug test while driving for Penske Racing in 2012. Allmendinger eventually hooked on with JTG Daugherty last year, running nine races for the team, which was highlighted by a 10th-place finish at Watkins Glen - the team’s only top-10 of the season.
“This is a good place that I can hopefully be at for a long time. They don’t make me feel like I’m only a race car driver, but they make me feel like I’m part of this family,” said Allmendinger. “This season is all about putting things together, piece by piece, and hopefully that translates into wins and success.”
Leavine Family Racing is also looking to make headway in 2014. The team enters its fourth season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with a new driver, Michael McDowell, and a renewed focus on ensuring strong qualifying sessions to make it into the 43-car Sprint Cup Series field in all 20 of its scheduled races this season.
That’s a task just got a bit trickier given the recent announcement in changes to this year’s qualifying format.
“I’m not even sure I’m allowed to say this, but I’m glad I don’t have to start and park anymore,” said McDowell. “We really need to find out what works best for us in qualifying and we’ll get that figured out. But running 20 races will allow us to really manage our program and build to the future.”
As will its alignment with K-Love, a contemporary Christian music radio programming service that can be heard by over 12 million listeners over 440 FM stations and 47 states. K-Love will sponsor all 20 races for the No. 95 Ford this season.
“To be able to have that kind of fan base and the values of their programming really speaks to me on a personal level,” said McDowell. “Not only does it fit into my beliefs, but that connection is important to building existing and future partnerships, too.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“If my wife saw this she’d say my rear end never looked so good.”
Mayor of Charlotte Patrick Cannon, after receiving the back end of a race car with his name on it.
Tony Stewart: “It’s not literally knock out.”
Kevin Harvick: “If we’re fighting I’m kicking you in the leg (laughter).”
Tony Stewart: “It’s like the Karate Kid all over again - sweep the leg and it’s all over.”
Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick joking about NASCAR’s new “knockout” qualifying format.