NASCAR media tour musings
CONCORD, N.C. -- Call it the feel-good tour. Every year in January, the NASCAR media tour is all about optimistic outlooks, sometimes unrealistically so.
It's also about stroking sponsors and giving them as much attention as possible from more than 200 journalists in attendance. It's 100 percent self-promotion, and that's OK, just part of the show.
It can get a little preachy at times, but last's week four-day tour was more about continuing last season's momentum. The theme was clear: Don't fix what ain't broken.
And this tour included daily praise of the media. What? I expected Sally Field to stand up any moment and say, "You like me. You really like me."
It was quite a contrast to a year ago, when the tour theme was chastising reporters and telling the media to "be positive" in their coverage.
I guess they thought we were listening, but it's easy to be positive when things are good, and 2011 was NASCAR's best season in years.
Now everyone in the sport wants to capitalize on last's season's success, including a classic championship finish between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.
The good times continued with the best media tour in years. Each day of the 2012 tour had some interesting moments. Here are several that stood out:
• Danica's all in -- The first stop of the first day was the biggest news of the week. Danica Patrick casually announced she will skip the Indy 500 this year to race the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte.
Patrick said a business deal just couldn't get done. We're talking about a walking commercial here. Companies line up to back her. A deal could have gotten done had she really wanted it.
This decision shows Patrick has moved on. She simply wants to concentrate on her full-time Nationwide schedule and her partial season in Cup.
Patrick was one of the most accessible drivers on the tour. After her announcement Monday during the Stewart-Haas Racing session, she was back Tuesday night for the Nationwide dinner, even playing along in a game-show skit.
The clear message from Patrick is she's committed to NASCAR all the way and wants to make it work.
• Ganassi telling it like it is -- Typically during tour week, team owners are so overly optimistic, it's tough at times not to roll your eyes and shake your head. Chip Ganassi had no intention of sugarcoating his team's 2011 performance.
Ganassi revamped his management team to hopefully show major improvement in 2012. Look for this team to move up this year.
• Ford's stylish new ride -- It was a "wow" moment when Ford rolled out its shiny, new 2013 Fusion on Day 2 of the tour. For the first time in more than two decades, Cup cars will look like the car you buy off the showroom floor.
And the 2013 Fusion is one spectacular production car in its distinctive look. Frankly, Ford smoked the other Cup manufacturers by rolling out its 2013 race car during the tour, and it garnered tons of publicity.
The word is Chevy, Dodge and Toyota also will look much more like real stock cars in 2013, an initiative NASCAR started planning with the auto manufacturers two years ago.
But Ford got the jump on the other manufacturers last week. Chevy, Dodge and Toyota will have a hard time surpassing Ford's dramatic rollout.
• Nationwide regulars steal the show -- It was all fun and games for the Nationwide Series dinner and a nice way to learn more about the drivers in the Triple-A league.
The funniest part was a Feuding Families game show with Nationwide drivers versus a media team. The drivers crushed the reporters (I think it was rigged), but it was hilarious to watch, especially Kenny Wallace in velvet bell-bottoms doing his Richard Dawson impression. He even got Danica to kiss him on the cheek.
The Nationwide team, which included Patrick, named itself "Danica and those other guys," a little hint at how it may feel at times during the season.
Elliott Sadler did his best David Letterman impression on stage in a "Late Show" theme, including a top-10 list of why we should tune in to Nationwide Series races in 2012.
A few examples:
• Reason No. 9: Because Sunday should be a day of rest.
• Reason No. 4: Kentucky Speedway, easy in, easy out.
• Reason No. 1: From defending champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- "Because we're bad-ass drivers, what else?"
The lighthearted approach to the night was a good idea, but nobody addressed the elephant not in the room: Cup drivers.
Once the season starts, the Nationwide regulars take a back seat while Cup stars win most of the races. Cup drivers won 28 of 34 Nationwide events in 2011.
Monster Energy left Ricky Carmichael's Truck ride to sponsor the Cup stars in the Nationwide Series. Monster Energy should sponsor Cup drivers in the Cup series.
I would have no problem with Monster Energy sponsoring Kyle's Nationwide team if it were using a Nationwide driver. This trend won't change until team owners step up and tell sponsors they need to go to the Cup series to sponsor Cup drivers. That doesn't happen because greed takes over.
Consequently, all the hard work NASCAR does to promote the Nationwide drivers has limited success because they don't win many races. Winning is what fans and sponsors notice. So the attention goes to the Cup guys, who often race with the backing of Cup teams.
The rule last season to make Cup guys ineligible for the Nationwide title was a good move, but it's not enough. Roush Fenway Racing had trouble finding sponsorship this season for Stenhouse as the defending champ.
The good news is the trend of Cup stars running the entire Nationwide schedule appears to be ending. Hopefully the trend of them winning most of the races will end, as well.
• Kentucky do-over -- Everyone deserves a second chance. Kentucky Speedway officials have spent a fortune to show the fans they can get it right after a traffic nightmare in the inaugural Cup event this past summer.
The Kentucky Speedway news conference was a highlight of Day 3. Track officials made fun of themselves with orange barrels and cones leading into the interview ballroom. Reporters were given little rubber orange barrels.
But Kentucky and Speedway Motorsports Inc. officials are serious about making up for last year's mistakes, when thousands of fans couldn't get to the race because of traffic gridlock.
SMI chairman Bruton Smith said ownership has spent over $10 million on traffic improvements, including purchasing adjacent land for additional parking, adding a pedestrian tunnel from the parking lots and expanding access roads.
Smith made some huge mistakes in his responses after the event, but give the man some credit. He's doing all he can to fix it.
• Harvick gets the last laugh -- During the tour stop at Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick announced that his wife, DeLana, is 14 weeks pregnant. RCR teammate Jeff Burton looked at Harvick and deadpanned: "Who's the father?"
OK, that was funny, but it's the Harvicks who get the last laugh on everyone who insinuated they were shutting down their Nationwide and Truck teams because of problems in their marriage.
The truth is they just wanted to start a family. I hope the Harvicks are getting a tiny little firesuit for the baby, boy or girl. Then we can say the baby wears the firesuit in the family.
By the way, RCR had the best meal of the tour with some quality sushi, along with some tasty meatballs and other spicy meat. Burton warned: "You guys know Richard shoots this stuff, right? And I'm placing no guarantees on what it is."
• Wal-Mart finally sponsors a car -- The final day of the tour started with Wal-Mart officials announcing they will sponsor a car in the July Daytona race, selecting old pro Bill Elliott as the driver.
It's a part of Wal-Mart's 50-year celebration, so the company managed to find a driver older than it is. Awesome Bill is 56.
But this is just a one-race deal. Wal-Mart should be on a car as the primary sponsor for a full season. Do any two entities go together better than Wal-Mart and NASCAR? And the $15 million to $20 million it would take to do this would be pocket change for Wal-Mart.
• Brad K. takes charge -- The most interesting thing to see during the Penske Racing session of the tour was the guy running the show. It wasn't Roger Penske. It was Brad Keselowski.
Kurt Busch's getting his walking papers at Penske was the best thing that could happen for Keselowski. He knows this is his team now, and he's embracing the leadership role.
And Keselowski's new teammate, AJ Allmendinger, just brought his Ford Riley home to win the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in a surprising upset.
Keselowski will contend for the Cup title, and Allmendinger will contend for the Chase. They'll both do it without screaming at Penske or their crew chief.
In all, last week was a NASCAR media tour worth remembering. Hopefully, it will carry over for the 2012 season.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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