The new NASCAR season has arrived and in the garage area, teams come to Daytona NBC airs the Daytona 500 on Feb. 19 at 2 pm/ET with healthy quantities of anticipation and optimism. Tony Stewart intends to build on the greatness he achieved last season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon hope to accelerate their way back into the top 10, Jimmie Johnson is getting a little tired of the bridesmaids dresses and the new crew at Roush hello, Mr. McMurray, don't let the door hit you on the way out, Mr. Busch is set for a few more backflips.
While this preseason gave drivers lots of opportunity to offer reasons why they're on the fast track, it also raised a number of topics that will affect the sport for years. The "Car of Tomorrow," a pet project of NASCAR Research and Development czar Gary Nelson that rolls out in 2007, is supposed to remake the common template chassis design into a safer, more competitive animal. Car owners aren't exactly buying into it yet, perhaps because the transition will be costly. Then there's the 2007 entry into Cup and Busch by Toyota, the foreign-made manufacturer that has lately been no slouch in the Truck series. Emphasizing that many a Toyota is built in Kentucky, company officials hope to head off any controversy about their entry into NASCAR's premier series, and with Darrell and (future Toyota driver) Michael Waltrip as mouthpieces, they'll at least have the right spokesmen.
Here's what some of the sport's finest had to say both in the days leading up to and at the recent NASCAR Media Tour about these and other high-banking issues.
LOOKING FORWARD TO 2006
Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson: "I feel like there's some unfinished business. I'm definitely frustrated. It lingered for a long time but that's the stuff that I hang on to as the years go by or the next season comes along and I say, 'Hey, I can't miss a chance. I have to do everything I can to be a champion.' We've been very close. I'm very proud of everything we've done. I think we're a stronger, more mature team. We've had some changes in crew members; we have a lot of new blood and new energy in the shop. We have a bunch of hungry guys who aren't accustomed to winning all the time and being a part of some of the championships, and the excitement and the eagerness to get started in the shop is like nothing I've seen since maybe coming off of Jeff's championship year and my rookie season. But there's excitement in this complex."
Jeff Gordon: "The biggest thing we learned through the last 10 races [of 2005] is we can't be identical to [the 48 team]. If they're running great, that doesn't mean it's gonna work for us. That's a great thing [new crew chief] Steve Letarte brought to the table, saying, "I don't care what everybody else is doing. We've got to do what we need to do for us." [Steve] has confidence, he knows the people, the cars, me, and he's not afraid to get in there and make gutsy calls and have that new, young, fresh mind-set. Any time you make changes and have this newness and desire, it helps get that passion back a little bit. We were definitely missing that, which wasn't anybody's fault, it's just how that works. I'm a little more excited [than last season] because we've got new things [going on] within the team, and we don't have the expectations that we had on us last year. I think more people are counting us out of the championship now that we didn't make the Chase than they're counting us in, and I like that better. I'd rather be off the radar and surprise people."
Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.: "When it comes down to it, I feel like I've learned a lot over the last year, just dealing with the people and dealing with [on-again crew chief-Dale Jr.'s cousin Tony Eury Jr.]. I feel like we both treat each other with a lot more respect, and that will clear up a lot of issues we had in the past. [Regarding the switch of crew chiefs last season with ex-teammate Michael Waltrip], it's real easy to sit here now and think, 'Man, what a mistake. What were you thinking?' But that was bigger than the sport and my success as a driver. It was about me and my cousin not getting along, which was more important to me. I didn't want to get to the point where I couldn't stand him anymore. This is where we start to climb back up the hill. Hopefully in two or three years we can be proud of ourselves and what we've been able to accomplish.
Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip: "There's no excuse for Jeff Gordon not being in the Chase and fighting for a championship. With his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, it makes no sense for him not to have at least close to the same amount of success. The question for Gordon is getting rid of [former crew chief] Robbie Loomis and bringing in Steve Letarte. Is that going to be what he needs to keep running up front all the time? Sometimes you've got to make a change in the organization, but is this young, inexperienced crew chief going to keep Gordon pumped up? On [Earnhardt] Junior's side, if he and his cousin can get along and don't end up in some family feud like they did to cause what happened at DEI, that'll be good for him and he should be back in the Chase.
Joe Gibbs driver Tony Stewart: "It is probably a scary thought for some people that I'm now the veteran of the team and I'm responsible for the other two [rookie] drivers, but it's gonna be a fun and exciting year. [The Daytona 500] is No. 1 on the to-do list. I'm not setting a goal on how many championships I want to win. My goal was to win one [last year]; winning two, I'm ecstatic. I didn't realize I'm only the second guy currently running to win multiple championships. I'm flattered and honored to be where I'm at, and you never stop trying to win championships, but if I never win another one you'll never hear me complain about it."
NASCAR'S NEW FREE AGENCY (OR, THE SWITCHING OF TEAMS MADE BY JAMIE MCMURRAY AND KURT BUSCH LONG BEFORE THEIR CONTRACTS WERE ENDING)
NASCAR CEO Brian France: "I didn't care for it and it was one of those things that was out of control and part of the free market that we live in; they're free to make choices. I would like to see things happen a bit differently, but that's not the way that went down, and we are where we are. I think the team owners will [do something to control it]. I think they will write their agreements differently and have negotiating windows or whatever else to try to eliminate lame-duck situations. They ended up resolving it and making the swaps obvious a year ahead, which was good, but no team wants to be in a lame-duck situation. There's an orderly way to release somebody or hire somebody else."
Roush driver Jamie McMurray: "It's fun to be in the media, but not fun to be criticized for being a trendsetter for something that's not good and I didn't view it that way. I was going to fulfill my obligation at [former team] Chip Ganassi. I saw something on Speed Channel the other night that showed not only all the driver changes but all the crew-chief changes and sponsor changes. It was overwhelming. I think our sport has become so competitive that if you're not winning, you get replaced. It's hard to build up one team without putting another team down, but it's exciting to walk into Roush racing and see the amount of win banners on the wall. Everyone is so confident here that it's refreshing."
Yates racing driver Dale Jarrett: "I think it's definitely going to be a trend in the future and there's nothing here that's really going to stop that because as drivers, we're independent contractors and there's nothing I can see to keep that from happening. Is it the right way to go about it? Everybody's going to have a different opinion there. But you will always have teams and drivers who are not willing to sit through a contract. Money plays a part, but I don't think either of those drivers were trading their deal simply for the money. I think they were looking more toward the competition side. We're an impatient bunch. We show that a lot on the track. Everybody's going to do well now, and this is a 'now' sport."
Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon: "It bothers me a bit that a contract isn't really a contract. I believe in commitment, and when you have a commitment toward somebody you want to fulfill that, but I think [what happened is] not necessarily anyone's fault. It might just be something that, in the future, when we do contracts, we have something built in that prevents someone from doing that behind your back."
Yates driver Elliott Sadler: "We've got so much pressure in this sport now. If you don't make the top 10, everything's lost, it seems, from every team's standpoint. We've got so many team sponsors, and making it the year before but not this year was really tough. Change will happen, just like in any other competitive professional sport. People are going to be bidding on you to try to make things happen. The way people look at things now, you can win two or three races but not make it into the top 10 and have your season deemed a failure."
MB2 driver Joe Nemechek: "I was raised a little different than that."
Ganassi-Sabates owner Felix Sabates: "I'm not saying anything, but there are some drivers who drive for an owner and hate the owner, but since they're successful they do it anyway. If you have respect between the driver and the owner you can get a lot of things done."
THE "CAR OF TOMORROW"
Gary Nelson: "If we do it right, there's room for adjustability and innovation on the car, and those adjustments many times will be the difference between winning and not winning. Engineering will still be a big part of it, but the driver and the crew on race day will be showcased more."
Ray Evernham: "At some point, you have to switch. If the car is done properly, it could be a good thing for the sport and [it could]save money, but right now, NASCAR has a lot of work to do on it. It's a mess, but the good intentions are there. The plan going forward has to be [developed] and executed properly and, over the long run, it could save money. Aerodynamically, the car did not accomplish what it set out to accomplish otherwise you wouldn't be putting a wing on it. Why is there a wing on the back of a stock car?"
THE ENTRY OF TOYOTA INTO THE NEXTEL CUP
Ray Evernham: "Will it bring the cost of the game up again? More than likely, but you have to have the money coming from somewhere. You can't spend what you don't have. I don't see the American manufacturers even wanting to [outspend everybody], given the shape they're in. It's up to NASCAR to create the rules as such that if you want to spend $100 million, you shouldn't be able to go faster than somebody that doesn't."