|ESPN.com: NASCAR||[Print without images]|
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Less than 24 hours after a hotly contested Rolex 24 sports car race at Daytona International Speedway, America's auto-racing media have converged on Charlotte for the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Through Thursday, NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, as well as the sanctioning body itself, will stage a series of news conferences to lay out their hopes and plans for the 2014 season. ESPN will provide full coverage of the week's events over a variety of platforms, including Twitter via @ESPNMotorsports.
The ESPN.com motorsports team will be compiling information for a live blog, which you are familiar with during NASCAR race weekends, so be sure to check the site often for updates throughout the day.
-- John Oreovicz
#NASCAR's highest honor. #NASCARHOF pic.twitter.com/f6sWIMLcrE— NASCAR (@NASCAR) January 29, 2014
.@blakeshelton is in the house to help induct his friend @DaleJarrett. #NASCARHOF pic.twitter.com/PruH2Wn3zg— NASCAR (@NASCAR) January 29, 2014
Team Penske qualified one of its two Sprint Cup drivers for the 2013 Chase for the Cup, but it wasn't the one most people expected.
While Joey Logano participated in his first Chase, 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski was just the second defending series titlist to fail to make the Chase the following year since its inception in 2004.
After finishing eighth in the 2013 standings with a win at Michigan Speedway, Logano is confident he can pick up where he left off when the 2014 season gets underway, while Keselowski vows that he will not miss NASCAR's version of the postseason again.
Logano (age 23) and the 29-year-old Keselowski make up NASCAR's youngest top-team tandem, and waiting in the wings is 20-year-old Ryan Blaney, who will drive a Penske entry in 15 NASCAR Nationwide Series races and make his Sprint Cup debut at Kansas Speedway in May.
"Youth, continuity and consistency is going to be the difference with us," said team owner Roger Penske. "The rules are the same for everyone, and it's up to us to execute. The competition has never been tougher, but our goal is to be at that head table in Las Vegas [at the Sprint Cup championship celebration] in 2014."
Team Penske president Tim Cindric identified pit stops as one area the group could improve on. Although the team has maintained many of the same over-the-wall personnel, Cindric hired Jim Beichner, the former wrestling coach for the University of Buffalo, to help the No. 2 and No. 22 pit crews establish a different psychological philosophy about their jobs.
"I feel like we need to be better in our execution," Cindric said. "As we looked at how we could get better, we felt we need to take a different approach. I think you'll see our pit crew has some different faces. We need to continue to get better, because if we're not winning a championship, the one thing that we want to make sure we give Roger at some point in time is a Brickyard 400 victory."
The team enters its second season partnered with Ford, which Keselowski believes should work to its benefit.
"I think we do have a lot of continuity, and certainly working again with [crew chief] Paul Wolfe falls into that," Keselowski said. "The Ford relationship is obviously critical, and that's a piece we're very proud of. The Roush-Yates engine program has grown a lot since we've been with them, and we're very thankful for Doug Yates and his group over there. We're going to continue to push on that.
"We're committed to working with Ford, so there a lot of pieces moving there," he added. "But I think they're all moving in the right direction, and that's so important for us."
-- John Oreovicz
"Nobody wrote me any checks for being outspoken. Maybe I need to take lessons from Richard Sherman." pic.twitter.com/c0R6rwHrVj— John Oreovicz (@IndyOreo) January 29, 2014
Ryan Blaney to run 15 NNS races and two Cup races for Team Penske in 2014. Cup debut at KS in May. Will drive No. 12 SKF Ford.— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) January 29, 2014
Time for @penskeracing, where Roger Penske is looking for a better Cup season and a return to championship form. pic.twitter.com/nQC8w2mcmY— NASCAR on ESPN (@ESPNNASCAR) January 29, 2014
Drivers differ on proposed NASCAR format changes http://t.co/kbOjial8Ya— ESPN_Motorsports (@ESPNMotorsports) January 29, 2014
. @DavidRagan during the #SprintMediaTour hosted by @CLTMotorSpdwy. @FrontRowNASCAR pic.twitter.com/v0seOeT7Qt— Harold Hinson Photo (@HHinsonPhoto) January 29, 2014
.@DavidGilliland talks about how team's first win has changed shop morale long-term. pic.twitter.com/RCfXIGJc34— FrontRow Motorsports (@FrontRowNASCAR) January 29, 2014
Happy to have @ericmcclure in the 35 for the Daytona 500!— FrontRow Motorsports (@FrontRowNASCAR) January 29, 2014
@woodbrothers21 will race a total of 12 superspeedway and intermediate track events with @Tbayne21. #SprintMediaTour pic.twitter.com/iad8Nq9BJu— Kentucky Speedway (@KySpeedway) January 29, 2014
We're working hard on #SprintMediaTour, but we hear it's a bit snowy out at the track. pic.twitter.com/ZWglflHGeu— CharlotteMotorSpdwy (@CLTMotorSpdwy) January 29, 2014
Congrats to RCR family members Timmy Petty & @jasonjarrett on their fathers' induction into the @NASCARHall. pic.twitter.com/amyaGDJJCd— RCR (@RCRracing) January 29, 2014
Petty on the upswing
For all the success he's achieved in NASCAR, Richard Petty has seen his share of hard times, too.
The man they call The King felt anything but royal a couple of years ago when his partners in Richard Petty Motorsports encountered economic difficulties. Petty essentially reacquired his own team, and the road back to the top has been bumpy.
But Brian Moffitt, CEO of RPM since 2011, has helped put the team back on more solid financial ground. And now Petty believes that drivers Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola are in position to put RPM back into Victory Lane more often.
Ambrose captured the team's last Sprint Cup Series win at Watkins Glen International in August 2012 but is coming off a disappointing 2013 campaign in which he finished 22nd in the standings.
"We're probably in the best shape we've been in the last three or four years," Petty said. "Everybody knows we went really to the bottom a couple or three years ago when our car owner went bankrupt or whatever, and we got with a couple of guys and bought the place out and just tried to get some foundation.
"I don't know that our year last year was that much better than the year before, but it was a lot more stable, and that's what we're trying to do now."
Petty said that his year's sponsorship package with Stanley Tools, the U.S. Air Force and Smithfield Foods (which has increased its contribution by 50 percent) will allow the team to increase its wind tunnel program from six to 20 days.
"We're in a position where we've expanded our engineering effort and we can do more of our own research and development, rather than just take what Roush Fenway gives us," Petty said.
"We feel like that we're way better off than we've been on that part of the deal. I guess we'll have to have a little talk with the drivers and get them to step up a little, too."
Pigeonholed as a road course specialist, Ambrose has been competitive on short and intermediate tracks but is seeking his first career oval race win. He is pleased with the growth of the RPM organization.
"I joined Richard Petty Motorsports four years ago at a fairly tumultuous time," the Australian said. "That was a difficult time for Richard and everybody to rebrand the company and actually rebuy the company and take it from the crumbs. So I've seen it at its darkest days, and I'm really looking forward to 2014 because I think it's the year Richard Petty Motorsports can break out and really show everybody the maturity that it has taken since I've been there, over four years now.
"We've created an R&D program, and that's the first time that's happened since I've been at here," he added. "I'm excited about the potential of unlocking some more brain power on our race program."
Almirola fared slightly better than Ambrose in the 2013 standings (18th) but is still searching for his first Cup series victory.
"The commitment Smithfield Foods made to Richard Petty Motorsports and to me is tremendous," Almirola said. "It's allowed us to go out and hire more people, and I've got a new crew chief this year in Trent Owens. I feel really lucky to have him because he's going to help us a lot.
"We started off last year really well and faltered through the summer, and we're not going to falter this year. We're going to keep it up and keep that going."
-- John Oreovicz
After a frustrating 2013, Marcos Ambrose says he'll really have to scratch his head and knows jobs may be scarce. pic.twitter.com/5NpPAU4wCV— NASCAR on ESPN (@ESPNNASCAR) January 29, 2014
What does Richard Petty think about proposed Chase changes? "Just another PR deal." pic.twitter.com/OB7ZwEaS5H— John Oreovicz (@IndyOreo) January 29, 2014
Blinding stage lights, but The King can get away with indoor shades. #SprintMediaTour pic.twitter.com/VXUmoxIIfb— John Oreovicz (@IndyOreo) January 29, 2014***
Roush Fenway Racing: Room for improvement
In the classic half-glass scenario, Roush Fenway Racing looks back on its 2013 performance as a glass half-empty.
"We put two of our three cars in the Chase, and the third team won the rookie of the year award," RFR president Steve Newmark said. "We secured a number of wins, including our 315th in the NASCAR series, which is a team record. As part of that, we secured the historic 1,000th win for Ford, which appropriately happened up at Michigan.
"We had a couple wins at short tracks, which was important for us because that was an area that we focused a lot on for improvement over the last few years, and then notably we also at the end of the regular season were in first place."
Those statistics would seem to indicate a successful season for one of NASCAR's most successful organizations, but they didn't please Newmark or team owner Jack Roush.
"Those are not the stats by which we measure our performance," Newmark said. "Nine, 13 and 19 are the numbers we measure ourselves by -- the positions where we finished in the Cup standings. I can tell you that if you went to Roush Fenway, walked the halls and talked to any employee regardless of where they are on the org chart that they would tell you that that result is actually not acceptable. We establish standards for ourselves that are higher than that."
Entering the Chase, it looked pretty good for Roush Fenway. Carl Edwards won the final race of the regular season and headed the point standings at the start of the playoffs. But Edwards and the No. 99 team endured a poor Chase, finishing 13th, and last, in the 2013 final Chase standings.
Greg Biffle and the No. 16 team didn't fare much better, never factoring in the Chase on the way to a quiet ninth place.
Edwards in particular was disappointed by his team's late-season fade.
"We did really well in the regular season last year," he remarked. "We won a couple of races, but for [GM] Robbie Reiser, Jack Roush, [crew chief] Jimmy Fennig and our whole team, our mission is to win the championship. We want to take this group up here and the group at the shop and put Fords in Victory Lane -- but more importantly, win championships with our cars."
While Edwards was happy about the team's progress on short tracks, Biffle was dismayed that Roush Fenway was not as competitive as usual on 1.5-mile tracks.
"We needed to pick up our short-track program, because we knew that was a weak spot," Biffle said. "The problem is we lost what we feel is our stranglehold on the intermediate tracks. I wasn't happy about the trade, because there are more intermediates than short tracks. It's frustrating because if that's your bread and butter, and you roll off the truck 32nd or something and don't improve, I think it caught us off guard.
"To make the Chase is the first goal, and making a run at the title is the second. When you fall short halfway through, or three-quarters of the way through the Chase, it takes a little bit of wind out of your sails. We never go out on that racetrack without the motivation to win, but it's a bit of an emotional letdown when you're not in contention for that championship."
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bested his girlfriend, Danica Patrick, for rookie of the year honors, but he was unhappy in general with his position in the standings. He cited a pole at Atlanta and five top-12 finishes in the final stages of the season (including a third place at Talladega) as a trend of improvement.
"I'm not worried about a sophomore slump because I thought our freshman year kind of sucked, in my eyes," he joked. "I think we definitely learned a lot and will be able to use that and apply it to this year, which should make it 10 times better.
"They asked me that in Nationwide, and we went from our rookie year to winning a championship and winning two races. Across the board we were all disappointed last year about our result, though not about the effort our guys put in. We saw where we needed to improve, and we're working really hard this offseason. The guys are really pumped up, and I think our work is going to pay off."
-- John Oreovicz
.@roushfenway drivers now on stage. #SprintMediaTour #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/okU35vBDvw— Ford Racing (@FordRacing) January 29, 2014