Media tour mania returns to Charlotte
If Daytona Beach is the symbolic and spiritual home of NASCAR, Charlotte is where most of the action behind the scenes takes place.
NASCAR's corporate offices are housed in a shiny new building right across International Speedway Boulevard from Daytona International Speedway, in Daytona Beach, Fla. But every major Sprint Cup team, with the exception of Denver-based Furniture Row Racing, is located within an hour of Greater Charlotte. North Carolina's largest city is also the site of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The 2014 Sprint Cup campaign doesn't start until Feb. 23, with the traditional season-opening Daytona 500. Next week, however, the spotlight will shine on Charlotte, where the strength of the stock car industry will be on display Jan. 27-31, when NASCAR hosts its annual media tour and the induction ceremony for the fifth group of personalities elected to the Hall of Fame. This year's honorees are Maurice Petty, Tim Flock, Fireball Roberts, Jack Ingram and Dale Jarrett, bringing the total number of inductees to 25.
While the Hall of Fame induction ceremony gives the NASCAR community a chance to reflect on the sport's historical legacy, the media tour is all about the present and the future. This year, instead of busing media members from race shop to race shop, the key players will assemble at the Charlotte Convention Center for four days of interviews and photo opportunities.
ESPN.com senior motorsports editor K. Lee Davis and I will be on site to report all the news as it breaks; here's a preview of what to watch for:
1. JJ's run for seven -- Jimmie Johnson returned to championship form in 2013, claiming his sixth Sprint Cup championship. Title No. 6 followed two "off" years for NASCAR's most dominant driver (he finished sixth in the standings in 2011 and third in 2012 after winning five consecutive crowns from 2006 to '10), but there was something unusual about the latest trophy in Johnson's personal six-pack: It didn't feature nearly as much fan animosity and backlash as the previous five.
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Whether that means NASCAR fans have come to appreciate and respect the sport's most successful current driver, or whether they have learned to accept the inevitable, there appeared to be more cheers than jeers for the 38-year-old California native's latest triumph. But now the focus has turned to how long it will take Johnson to match Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt -- two of stock car racing's most iconic drivers, and both inaugural-class NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees -- with seven Cup series championships.
Johnson's "Revvin' for Seven" won't be the most important topic covered during the media tour, but it's a story that will gain strength throughout the year if JJ and the No. 48 Lowe's/Hendrick Motorsports team perform to their usual standard.
2. Changes for the Chase? – A recent Charlotte Observer story reported that NASCAR plans to once again modify the Chase for the Sprint Cup format, opening up the second-season showdown to as many as 16 drivers and creating an elimination format that would see four drivers contending for the championship at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The Chase has been a hot topic since its inception in 2004, and news of the proposed changes to the format were met with a hostile reaction from the press and fans on social media. The team-orders shenanigans that occurred in the fall 2013 Richmond race, and the subsequent addition of Jeff Gordon to the Chase as an unprecedented 13th driver, reignited the debate over the worthiness and credibility of NASCAR's insistence upon creating a playoff-like atmosphere.
Following more than three days of availability with individual teams, NASCAR is on the docket for the final press conference of the week, Jan. 30 at 1 p.m. ET. The revised Chase format is expected to be confirmed then -- unless NASCAR has an unlikely change of heart in the interim.
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3. New qualifying rules -- NASCAR jumped the gun on the media tour by announcing on Jan. 22 that with the exception of the Daytona 500, single-car qualifying is a thing of the past. All three of NASCAR's national series (Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series) will now feature group qualifying, with three rounds at tracks longer than 1.25 miles and two rounds on shorter circuits. The slowest cars will be eliminated as the qualifying sessions progress, with the fastest 12 cars advancing to the final round at every track.
The Daytona 500's unique system of single-car qualifying to set the front row, followed by a pair of 150-mile "Duel" races, remains unchanged.
By making the change to group qualifying, NASCAR is acknowledging that its single-car qualifying sessions were less than scintillating for fans and competitors. The new rules will eliminate much of the need for unique single-lap qualifying setups, and may even require cooperation between teammates at high-speed tracks where drafting in multicar packs could provide an advantage. Conversely, drivers will be challenged to find a clean lap at short tracks, when 30 or 40 cars could conceivably be on track during the initial 25-minute session.
The media tour will offer drivers and teams an opportunity to weigh in on the new procedures for the first time.
4. Meet the rookies -- This storyline isn't as sexy as it was in 2013 -- when boyfriend/girlfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick competed for Rookie of the Year honors -- but this year's class of first-year Sprint Cup drivers has the potential to make a bigger impression on the racetrack.
The eight-member rookie class of 2014 is led by defending Nationwide Series champion Austin Dillon, who already made waves through no fault of his own when Richard Childress, his grandfather and team owner, assigned Dillon the iconic No. 3 made famous by Dale Earnhardt. Aside from the Earnhardt connection, Dillon has big shoes to fill at Richard Childress Racing, because he's stepping into the seat vacated by Stewart-Haas Racing-bound Kevin Harvick.
Beyond Dillon, other rookies making their full-time debut on NASCAR's biggest stage include: Kyle Larson, who takes over the No. 42 Chevrolet for the Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates stable; Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt, who will wheel a pair of Toyotas for Swan Racing; Michael Annett, who looks to bring some stability to Tommy Baldwin's No. 7 Chevrolet; and Justin Allgaier, who gets a full-time Cup opportunity in the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet.
5. What is Gene Haas up to? -- Until about six months ago, Gene Haas was content being the silent partner in Stewart-Haas Racing. But when Tony Stewart, the public face and heart of the team, badly broke his leg in a sprint car accident in July, Haas stepped to the forefront in a big way. Seemingly without Stewart's knowledge or blessing, Haas announced the formation of a fourth SHR entry for Kurt Busch, and when asked if Stewart was on board with the plan, Haas reportedly replied that Tony was free to hit the highway if he didn't like it.
Then, on Jan. 15, it was revealed that Haas has lodged an application to gain an entry for the 2015 Formula One World Championship. Haas certainly possesses the technical tools to enter Formula One, as the owner of a world-class firm that manufactures automated milling machines. Haas also owns Concord, N.C.-based Wind Shear, which is one of the most advanced rolling road wind tunnel facilities in the world, as well as Haas CNC manufacturing facilities in Europe.
Of course, the last time a Formula One team tried to sprout up in Charlotte, USF1 never came close to getting off the ground and became the butt of many jokes in the industry. There's no question that Haas has more resources to work with than USF1 founders Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson, but the notion of an American F1 team is still something that few take seriously. On the NASCAR media tour, Haas will have a golden opportunity to convince the doubters.
6. The Danica Watch -- No NASCAR story these days is complete without a mention of Danica Patrick, but she's at the opposite end of a list like this compared to where she would have been a year ago. By claiming pole position for the 2013 Daytona 500, Patrick set expectations at a very high level for her full-time Sprint Cup Series debut, and there was nowhere to go but down.
Yet almost nobody predicted how far she would fall, failing to notch another top-10 result after coming home eighth at Daytona in a race in which she was genuinely competitive; then she finished a distant 27th in the series standings. Yes, it was a learning year, but with Stewart-Haas-massaged Hendrick equipment underneath her, many observers felt she should have been running closer to the top 15 or 20 on a more regular basis.
Stewart-Haas as a whole had a tough year, with the situation not helped by co-owner Stewart's season-ending accident in July. With Ryan Newman out and the harder-edged Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch now in the mix at SHR, the atmosphere in the team will change; working with those serious-minded racers could work to Patrick's advantage, because she possesses a similar fiery temperament. Then again, it may not, and it's up to Danica this year to prove that she belongs on a top-level Cup team because she's a competitive race car driver, and not just a sponsorship and attention generator.
Of course, if her NASCAR dream falls apart, maybe she'll land on her feet with Gene Haas' Formula One team. After all, F1 was her original career goal before she got sidetracked back to America almost 15 years ago …
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