Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle – Optimism is riding high as 2011 dawns

NASCAR may have the longest season and the shortest off season in professional team sports, but the short amount of time away from the track was enough to get everyone in the series excited about the upcoming racing season. New sponsors and new paint schemes have drivers, owners and teams feeling like they are ready to run up front and contend for a championship. While there are no certainties in the racing world when it comes to competition and results on the track, it’s a given that everyone feels like the new year will be their year before the green flag drops at Daytona.

The NASCAR Sprint Media tour–hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway–takes the army of journalists who follow the series on a weekly basis to race shops for most of the big teams during the nearly week-long event, and the same theme is trumpeted by almost every one of them. Their engine shops have been working harder than ever to make their power plants even stronger than they’ve ever been. The engineers have been in the wind tunnel and on the seven post and pull down rigs almost all Winter squeezing even more performance out of their cars which is going to give them an edge over the rest of the competition. Until the cars hit the track, there is no way to tell which of them are right and which of them are going to be looking up at the points leaders by the time the series hits Charlotte in May.

One of the most interesting tidbits out of the shop visits was the chorus coming from all of the crew chiefs in the Hendrick Motorsports shop. To a man they all admitted that their cars were down on speed in 2010. It is hard to imagine that the organization that just claimed its fifth consecutive championship was behind the competition, but the simple fact that only one of their four teams visited victory lane during the year is a definite indication that they were lacking. Steve Letarte confirmed that the engine shop has been putting in extensive hours over the off season and feels like they are going to be on at least the same level as the competition going into the 2011 season. Increased horsepower combined with the enthusiasm that has been brought on by the team swaps over the Winter could signal an even better year for the HMS stable.

But it’s not just HMS that will enter the 2011 season full of high hopes. Richard Childress Racing added a fourth car to its lineup, and the entire organization feels like it is going to be a bonus this year. RCR had four teams in 2009 and none of them were able to make the Chase, and as a result they scaled back for 2010, a decision that put all three in the Chase. So what is going to make 2011 work like last year vs. 2009? Childress feels like he has the organization in place this time to properly handle the increased demand on the entire operation. The long-time owner admitted when they attempted to go to four teams before they tried to make it work with only a small increase in resources. This time around they have ramped up the personnel and feel as though the organizational structure they have in place is going to be able to take advantage of having a fourth car on the track rather than be overwhelmed by putting another team in the race.

Roush Fenway racing came on strong at the end of 2010 with Carl Edwards winning the final two races on the schedule. But it came as a surprise when Jack Roush admitted that his company took the wrong approach last year and it cost them dearly for the majority of the season. He feels like they now have their engineering and competition arms in sync with each other and are poised to knock Jimmie Johnson off of his perch at the top of the sport. With Ford Motor Company celebrating the 110th anniversary of Henry Ford’s only racing experience and one win away from notching their 600th Cup Series win, the flagship organization of the blue oval is poised to have a very successful 2011.

This season, Joe Gibbs Racing will celebrate 20 years of competing in NASCAR, and they are feeling rather confident about the prospects for this year. Following a runner-up finish in points by Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano scoring the sixth most points in the last 10 races and Kyle Busch finishing eighth in points with two wins, the top Toyota team in the sport has been inching closer to a title run every year since switching from Chevrolet in 2008. The young lineup of drivers continues to mature and figure out how to win races and championships which should translate into success for the entire Gibbs company.

Penske Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, Furniture Row, Michael Waltrip Racing and all of the other race teams that are ready to hit the pavement in Daytona feel like they’ve done everything necessary and put all of the pieces in place to become winning teams in 2011.

The racing season is going to put every one of the teams in the garage to the test, and the trials and tribulations of a 38-race season will put strains on pit crews, crew chiefs, race engineers, support staffs and everyone involved with the organizations that compete week in and week out on the Cup circuit. But the teams all feel like they are going to be winners this year, and they have not been put to the test yet so there is no reason for them to hope for anything less. Once the flag drops on the Daytona 500 we’ll start getting some answers and eventually, as the checkered flag falls at Homestead we’ll know the answer to the biggest question. In between it’ll become clear who was correct about their feelings for 2011 and whose optimism was misguided.

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