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NASCAR: Live from Charlotte

1/30/2014 - NASCAR

NASCAR media tour: Day 4

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 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

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New Chase format unveiled

The long-rumored changes to the Chase were finally announced, with NASCAR chairman Brian France saying the decisions by the ruling body will be the driving force behind the sport into the future.

Here's what is planned beginning this season:

• The Chase will consist of 16 drivers. If you win one of the season's first 26 races, you are in (provided you raced full time in the Sprint Cup Series). If there are fewer than 16 drivers with a victory, the rest of the field will be set on points.

• At the start of the Chase, points will reset to 2,000 with three bonus points for each win during the regular season. There will be no bonus points for a win during the Chase, but bonus points for leading a lap and the most laps led will be given in all but the final race of the season.

• The first three races of the Chase (Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover) will comprise the Challenger Round of the playoffs, with the lowest four drivers being eliminated from the field of 16. A victory in any of the three races guarantees a spot in the Contender Round.

• The Contender Round encompasses the next three races (Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega), and again the four lowest drivers will be dropped from the Chase, thinning the field to eight. Again, a win guarantees a spot in the Eliminator Round.

• The eight remaining drivers will head to Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix trying to get an automatic berth into the Championship Round in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where four drivers will compete for the ultimate prize, the Sprint Cup Championship.

• The top finisher at Homestead among the remaining four drivers will be crowned the champion.

-- K. Lee Davis

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Gibbs looks to go one better

It's safe to say that "excitement" is the watchword at Joe Gibbs Racing for 2014, as team personnel jokingly used variations of the word about 30 times during their 15-minute news conference.

All three of the team's Sprint Cup drivers won races in 2013, with Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch finishing second and fourth in the standings and Kenseth being the only driver able to stay close to Sprint Cup titlist Jimmie Johnson during the Chase for the Championship.

Kenseth and Busch are back along with Denny Hamlin, who is fully recovered from the back injuries that adversely affected his 2013 campaign.

"We have a great team for Cup, a great Nationwide team and Darrell Wallace in Trucks," said JGR president JD Gibbs. "We started this race team with 15 people, and now we've grown so much. We have a great group of guys -- drivers, crew chiefs, engineers and great guys at the shop. Lord willing, we'll have a great season as well."

In his first year driving Gibbs Toyotas, Kenseth enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career, winning a Cup series-high seven races with nearly 1,800 laps led.

"I'm really looking forward to our second year together," he said. "Last year, there were a lot of unknowns, and I was probably kind of nervous and not 100 percent comfortable. Having a year to learn and understand how JGR operates, I'm hoping it will be better and we can improve on the things we did last year."

Busch had his best season to date under NASCAR's Chase format, but he was unable to keep pace with Johnson and Kenseth and ultimately placed fourth in the standings.

Busch won four Cup races and earned 16 top-5s and set a Nationwide Series record with 12 victories. He said he hasn't set goals of trying to match or exceed those totals.

"We don't necessarily set goals for the season in the 18 team," he said. "We used to, but we never seemed to really achieve those goals. You want to say, 'Five wins, so many top-5s, so many top-10s,' and when you're not achieving those, you start thinking you have to make up in other races what you haven't achieved.

"We just go out there and race to our potential and get whatever we can out of the day or the weekend or whatever it may be. If running in the top 10 was all we had that day, we've achieved our potential."

Hamlin's 2013 campaign was blighted by the broken back he sustained in March in an accident at Auto Club Speedway in California. He missed eight races and admitted that it was not until late in the season that he regained the mobility he needed to be competitive, claiming a victory in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"The biggest thing is I started to feel better at the end of 2013," Hamlin said. "The last six races or so, I felt physically a lot better and more comfortable in the car. It was great to get the win at Homestead and get back where we were accustomed to. I'm pretty confident we'll be back to our normal ways in 2014."

Elliott Sadler returns to spearhead JGR's Nationwide Series attack, joined for partial campaigns by Busch, Sam Hornish Jr. and Drew Herring.

-- John Oreovicz

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Leaner MWR puts focus back on the track

The fourth and final day of the NASCAR media tour again kicked off with a comedy routine.

This time it was Michael Waltrip, who reeled off a series of self-deprecating one-liners as he talked about his team's hopes for the 2014 Sprint Cup season.

But Michael Waltrip Racing had little to laugh about in the latter stages of 2013 after sparking the team orders scandal that rocked the NASCAR world in September at Richmond International Raceway. MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. (now racing for Furniture Row Racing) was booted out of the Chase for the Cup after the team was declared guilty of bringing the sport into disrepute by ordering teammate Clint Bowyer to intentionally create a caution.

The plan backfired. The team was fined $300,000 and NASCAR suspended MWR executive Ty Norris for more than four months, before reinstating him last week. And the fallout is still being felt by the organization; MWR co-owner Rob Kauffmann confirmed the team will downsize from three full-time entries in the Sprint Cup Series to two, and his staff has been cut by 15 percent to about 220.

Bowyer is back in the No. 15 Toyota sponsored by 5-Hour Energy, while Brian Vickers has been medically cleared to drive the No. 55 Aaron's Dream Machine Camry. Waltrip and new recruit Jeff Burton will share a part-time schedule in a No. 66 entry.

"We're very versatile and very lean and we are better prepared for 2014 than any year before, including 2012 when Bowyer showed up and finished second in the championship," said Waltrip.

"Burton has been a huge asset to MWR in the short time he's been here. He brings good information that Vickers and Clint know they can rely on. He's also a motivator. He's there from the moment the track opens to the end of day -- he's all-in."

Burton was not present Thursday because he is in Nashville testing. Kauffmann said the team has scheduled all of its allotted test days in the first third of the season in hopes of getting off to a strong start.

"We had an especially busy offseason after we reorganized in 2013, but everyone is focused and motivated," Kauffman noted. "Our staff is down about 15 percent, but just to keep things in perspective, our engineering budget is up 15 percent. That shows how seriously we take being competitive on the track. This is a performance-based business and you need that to succeed."

Bowyer applauded the changes that MWR has put into place as he tries to shake off the lingering backlash from Richmond.

"Preparation is the key, and we are as prepared as we've ever been since I've been at MWR," Bowyer said. "It says a lot about reorganizing and doing it the right way. The guys are poised and ready to go to battle. As a race car driver, it's comforting to be surrounded by so many smart people, and it's nice to have owners that put the funding in the right places."

Vickers missed the last month of the 2013 season after a recurrence of the blood clots that caused him to sit out most of 2010.

"I'm cleared, I'm ready to go, I'm off the blood thinners, and I've never been more excited in my life about getting back into a race car," he said.

-- John Oreovicz

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