Media tour reveals new rides, new tech, even new romance
By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
NASCAR’s annual media tour, held each year in Charlotte, N.C. prior to the start of Speedweeks in Daytona, usually generates off-season news as teams and NASCAR wait for the tour to make any official announcements concerning the upcoming season.
This year’s tour, held last week, was no different, except that some of the biggest news came the day after the tour ended when Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. confirmed to the Associated Press that they were dating each other.
It had been rumored for weeks that Patrick, who announced last fall that she was divorcing her husband, Paul Hospenthal, and Stenhouse, the two-time and defending Nationwide Series champion, were romantically involved.
Stenhouse, who will face Patrick in the Sprint Cup circuit’s Rookie of the Year contest this season, was questioned about their relationship during the media tour but offered little insight. The two spoke with the AP the next day and insisted that their off-track relationship won’t affect the way they race each other on the track.
Stenhouse, 25, is moving up to Cup to drive the No. 17 Ford at Roush Fenway Racing. Patrick, 30, will drive the No. 10 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.
On the tour, Joe Gibbs Racing announced that it had signed Kyle Busch to a long-term contract extension. Gibbs also will field the No. 54 Toyota in the Nationwide Series with Busch as its primary driver. Busch, for the most part, raced his own car in the Nationwide Series last year, but without the success he’s had in Gibbs’ cars in the past.
“This is a big deal for us,” JGR President J.D. Gibbs said. “It’s no secret that you have to have great drivers to win in NASCAR, and in the past year we’ve been able to secure long-term deals with Kyle and Denny [Hamlin] and of course we were able to add Matt [Kenseth] as well. Kyle is a big part of our success at JGR and we’re thrilled to know he will be with us for a long time.”
Busch, who drove for both Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports earlier in his career, said he looked around and decided that staying with Gibbs was his best opportunity.
“I did have options, which was awesome,” he said. “I just felt like this was the best place for me. I’ve been here for a while now.”
Busch said the lineup of drivers and crew chiefs at Gibbs weighed heavily in his decision.
“It just shows nothing but positive growth over here for this organization,” he said.
At Roush Fenway Racing, team co-owner Jack Roush said he hoped to put Trevor Bayne in a full-time Sprint Cup ride in 2014. Bayne, who is set to run a full Nationwide Series campaign for Roush this season, already runs a limited Cup schedule in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford. He won the Daytona 500 in that car in 2011.
Roush said Bayne’s move to a full-time Cup ride will require more sponsorship and continued improved performance by Bayne.
There were plenty of sponsor-related announcements last week, most of them involving existing sponsors continuing their relationships, plus a few new sponsors joining the sport. Hertz was among them, announcing that it was teaming with Penske Racing to back cars in both the Cup and Nationwide Series.
Cessna also announced that it would be sponsoring Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Chevrolet at Ganassi Racing for 10 races this season, joining McDonald’s, Dr. Pepper and Bass Pro Shops.
There also was confirmation that the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has 13 unsponsored races at this point.
His team owner Rick Hendrick said he’s not concerned and is waiting to sign a backer with the best long-term prospects.
Hendrick also announced that his youngest driver, Chase Elliott, will run five ARCA and nine Camping World Truck Series races under the Hendrick banner. Elliott, the 17-year-old son of former Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott, is in position to take over one of Hendrick’s four Cup cars, if and when one of the current drivers retires.
Jeff Gordon, at age 41, appears the most likely candidate for retirement at some point in the not-too-distant future. He talked about his plans last week, telling reporters that he doesn’t intend to compete into his 50s as many of his peers have done.
NASCAR officials discussed a new track-drying system that is billed as quicker than the kerosene-burning jet dryers now in use and more environmentally friendly.
Drying the track after a rain has been a painfully slow process in the past, as the process can take up to two hours at most tracks, making for a long wait for fans at the track and watching on TV.
“The goal is to improve it by 80 percent,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said. “So that means if we’re drying Daytona off, where it usually took two and a half hours, we get it down to 30 minutes.”
And France said that with the new system they’re close to meeting his goal.
“We’re going to be able to dry Martinsville off in 15 minutes,” he said. “It’s going to be a spectacular thing, and all auto racing will benefit from this as we go down the road.”
The new system, which NASCAR owns the rights to, relies on compressed air and heat, plus some vacuuming, to dry the track. The old jet dryers, supplied by the tracks, used the heat from jet engines to blow water off the track as well as dry it.
NASCAR officials also praised the work that has been done on the Generation 6 race car that will make its competitive debut next month at Daytona International Speedway.
“The collaborative efforts between the manufacturers, teams and NASCAR has been unparalleled in my 34-plus years in the sport,” said NASCAR’s vice president for competition Robin Pemberton. “We’ve been highly encouraged by the results that we’ve seen at the tests at Daytona and Charlotte earlier this month, and are optimistic that not only will the cars look great, we believe they will race great …
“I really believe we’re going to see some of the most competitive, intense and exciting racing that we’ve seen in quite some time.”