(Hendrick is confident his team can return to the championship form it missed out on last season - Getty Images)
This week’s annual NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte wasn’t chock full of breaking news, unless you’re among those who didn’t know reporters, writers and photographers like to eat. Buffet lines were plentiful even if the news was not.
The top two stories of the week spent in the Queen City were most likely Ford’s unveiling of the 2013 Sprint Cup Fusion and DeLana Harvick’s pregnancy, which should give you an indication of the wide spectrum of topics covered on the tour.
Other than that most of the trek around Charlotte was reserved for teams to outline their plans for the coming season and size up goals for the coming year.
Although every Cup every organization didn’t participate on the tour, most of the heavy hitters were represented.
Of course all predict big things for 2012 and multiple wins and championships. To say enthusiasm ran high at every visit is a giant understatement.
But there was a distinct vibe during every team’s session and although not one competitive lap has been run, it was interesting to gauge the atmosphere around a few of the sport’s high profile operations:
There is a definite swagger surrounding the defending Sprint Cup championship team. Tony Stewart’s performance last year has solidified this organization as a definite contender for future titles. Stewart has also given the outfit a more personal touch with the addition of crew chief Steve Addington and long-time pal Greg Zipadelli to the Director of Competition role. Throw Danica Patrick into the mix, who appears much more at home now that she’s a full-time NASCAR driver, along with Ryan Newman and SHR came off as a laid back bunch that is having a good time doing what they’re doing. This will be a fun bunch to watch in 2012.
Joe Gibbs Racing
The feeling was much more buttoned down when the Gibbs bunch gave their view of the coming year. Coach Gibbs did come close to breaking the tour record for the use of the word excited, but there was a distinct sense of pressure in the room. Two new crew chiefs and a trio of drivers that are all in their own way facing a pressure-filled situation heading into the season is the reality for Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. There are also questions on how the shift to TRD engines will impact the team’s fortunes as it looks to put last season’s motor woes behind. JGR appears to be at a crossroads this year and its 2012 performance could very well shape its overall direction.
Michael Waltrip Racing
The off-season facelift for this team brought in newcomers Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin to team up with holdover Martin Truex Jr. Team co-owner Waltrip, who is also slated to drive in a few races this year, kept the mood light during the MWR stop by hosting a talk show featuring his stable of drivers as guests. While David Letterman has nothing to worry about, the result was an opportunity to see the personalities of this quartet of drivers who at least early on in the process seem like they click together. The absolute test will obviously come on the racetrack and like its Toyota counterparts at JGR MWR needs to find some speed to compete on a regular basis. Bowyer and Martin will help elevate the team’s driving talent but equipment and engines are still unknown entities that will impact MWR’s hope to move to the next level.
(Jack Roush celebrates his 25th anniversary in NASCAR and seeks win number 300 this season - Getty Images)
Roush Fenway Racing
It was difficult to get a true sense of feeling around RFR for the simple fact that two of its three Sprint Cup drivers weren’t present at the team function. Carl Edwards was out of the country on a pre-planned vacation while Matt Kenseth was a late scratch due to a family emergency. That left Greg Biffle as the lone Cup driver rep in addition to team owner Roush and GM Robbie Reiser as team reps. Roush will be celebrating its 25<sup>th</sup> year in NASCAR this season and has a remarkable history in the sport including 299 career victories. But whether Edwards doesn’t fall victim to the hangover of just missing out on last year’s championship or Kenseth follows up his Chase appearance last season or Biffle rebounds from an off 2011 are a trio of big question marks at this juncture.
It may sound strange to hear a team as successful as Hendrick has been to be considered reenergized but that’s the case with this four-car stable. Missing out on last year’s sixth straight title has Jimmie Johnson proclaiming he’s “as hungry as ever” and team owner Hendrick was glowing with optimism but his entire organization including Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and newcomer Kasey Kahne. “I’m going to be really disappointed if we don’t have all four cars in the Chase and I’m going to be really disappointed if we don’t win the championship,” Hendrick said. “I can’t remember having four teams this solid, this strong, at the beginning of the year. I think we’re as prepared as we’ve ever been and if we don’t get it (the championship) it's going to be our fault.” Those words no doubt caught the attention of every other Cup operation.
Richard Childress Racing
There was more announced at the RCR gathering than the upcoming blessed event in the Harvick household. In addition to Harvick, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard, RCR will field a fourth entry for Elliott Sadler in the Daytona 500 as well as the following four events for Nationwide and truck series regular Brendan Gaughan. There are two crew chief changes among the three Cup drivers and a renewed sense of enthusiasm across the board but particularly with Burton who said bluntly his dismal 2011 “pissed him off.” It will be interesting to see how Harvick’s new personal life developments including divesting his KHI team impacts his season and if Burton finds his way back to being more competitive, as he demonstrated during the tail end of last year.
There was a sense of relief permeating the air during the Penske media event no doubt the result of the Kurt Busch controversy finally ending. While Busch was not thrown under the bus (in fact Penske said he was personally sending his former driver a letter wishing him well on his new endeavors) it was clear this team is excited to move on with A.J. Allmendinger now teaming up with Brad Keselowski. A contract extension announcement for Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe spoke volumes of how Penske feels about the duo that won three races and made the Chase last season. Keselowski is comfortable with the role of leader he now inherits and Allmendinger’s personality has fit right into the team.
Hope springs eternal at this time of the year to be sure and every team has reason to believe this will be their season to shine. However the reality of the grueling racing season is about to put those feelings of optimism to the test.
|More NASCAR coverage|