It was quite a week for the drivers, teams and media of NASCAR.
For three days, they all gathered together inside the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., for the annual NASCAR Media Tour. Once the curtain fell on Thursday, the 2016 NASCAR season quickly appeared more clear as many announcements were made on all three days – finalizing partnerships and creating whole new formats for crowning champions.
Starting with the State of the Sport address on Tuesday morning, NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian France formally announced a plethora of hefty changes for the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series starting in 2016. One of which was the addition of the Chase grid for both series – with small tweaks to adjust to the smaller schedules, race and field lengths, respectively.
“I think it’s important that they understand how difficult it’s going to be when they get to the next level,” France said. “And that winning a championship, consistency is a very important thing in auto racing and it will never change. But as you go up, I think we believe, not only does it make it more… certainly makes it more exciting for our fans, it starts there, right, and our fans love elimination style, they love the emphasis on winning, and so that’ll be a welcome addition in both those series.”
David Higdon, vp NASCAR integrated marketing communications, announced on Twitter that the elimination rounds of the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship will no longer be dubbed the Challenger, Contender and Eliminator rounds. Simply, they will be renamed the Round of 16, Round of 12, Round 8 and the Championship 4.
During Chevy Thursday, Tony Stewart commented on Brian France and how he would like the CEO of the sport to be more involved.“You never see Brian France,” Stewart said. “He shows up at the drivers’ meeting and you never see him after that. But I picked up what Brian was putting down. And he’s right, it’s their series and they’ve got to make the decisions. Just because it’s my idea doesn’t mean it’s the right idea. I would like to think in the 37 years I’ve been in racing that I’ve learned a thing or two.”
One piece of news that brought some smiles through NASCAR nation on Tuesday was the announcement of Bass Pro Shops partnership with Furniture Row Racing and driver Martin Truex, Jr.
“It’s nice to have Bass Pro Shops back on my race car,” Truex said. “In addition to my passion for fishing, hunting and the outdoors, Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris is a personal friend and a hunting buddy. With our manufacturer changing to Toyota, our Furniture Row Racing team is positioned to take both companies to Victory Lane and contend for the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.”
Another change for the Truck Series was the addition of the Caution Clock, which will limit the races to 20-minute shootouts before automatically putting the field under caution. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vp and chief racing development officer, spoke about it Tuesday.
“These innovations contain the elements of racing that our fans want the most,” O’Donnell said. “The enhancements put a premium on in-race strategy, and will create an unprecedented level of excitement as teams make tactical decisions that could impact their spot in the Chase.”
During this exciting part of every year, multiple empty rides were filled throughout the week, including a new alliance with Leavine Family Racing and Circle Sport. The team, with drivers Michael McDowell and Ty Dillon, will have a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing.
“The resources that Richard Childress and RCR can provide, including ECR engines, the Chevrolet SS and access to shared information and technology will be a tremendous help as we continue to grow as an organization,” owner Bob Leavine said. “RCR has an extremely competitive program with a storied history of winning races and championships and joining that culture of success makes this partnership especially attractive.”
During Chevy Thursday, Childress also commented on the alliance for 2016.
“I admire the hard work, dedication and passion that Joe Falk and Bob and Sharon Leavine have for NASCAR,” Childress said. “I know their addition to our RCR alliance teams will be mutually beneficial to both Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing and our current roster of technical alliance partners.”
“It’s up to me to adapt to how they work and give them what we need to give me fast racecars,” Cassill said.
Bob Jenkins, owner of Front Row Motorsports, has one victory in the Sprint Cup Series, coming in a 1-2 sweep at Talladega in 2013.
“We’ve always been impressed with Landon and what he can do behind the wheel,” Jenkins said. “He’s got a lot of natural talent. You could see that at every level of racing he’s competed in throughout his career. We’re happy to have that talent in one of our race cars this year.”Blake Koch will leave his No. 8 TriStar Motorsports XFINITY team for the newly formed Kaulig Racing No. 11 Chevrolet team for 2016.
“I can’t even put into words how excited I am for this opportunity,” Koch said. “Watching it all come together is something very special. Matt [Kaulig] and LeafFilter Gutter Protection have given us everything we need to be competitive. I am beyond proud to be able to represent them on and off the track.”
Cole Custer will pilot a full-time No. 00 JR Motorsports truck in 2016.
“Last year, we were running to win races and get experience,” Custer said. “This year, it’s going to be all about the points. I think we’ll still have the speed we had last year, and I think we’re going to be contenders for the championship.”
“This has been a crazy few days, but I’m really excited that we were able to put this together,” Smith said. “I have a ton of respect for Tommy [Baldwin, car owner] and what he’s built there. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
A change within Chip Ganassi Racing will see Chad Johnston come over from atop Tony Stewart’s pit box to lead Kyle Larson’s third year in Sprint Cup. Veteran driver Jamie McMurray said he believes it is more about their relationship than what Johnston could bring to the team.
“Well, he brought all of Kevin Harvick’s setups and body notes and everything,” McMurray joked. “I don’t know Chad that well at this point. I’ve only spent a couple days with him in the shop. In my opinion, it’s all about Kyle getting along with him and believing in him and Chad doing the same.”
During Ford Wednesday, Team Penske was honored as the Roger Penske-led organization celebrated 50 years in motor racing. With their current class of Sprint Cup Series talent on hand – Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski – IndyCar legend Rick Mears and NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace were also spotted during media availability.
Logano, who won six races in 2015, spoke about his incidents with Matt Kenseth in the later portion of 2015.
“We had a discussion at Homestead with NASCAR,” Logano said. “I got everything off my chest that I needed to say, and hopefully Matt did as well. As a driver, you keep your goals in mind. My goal as a race car driver is to win every race I’m in.“Each person has their own way of handling it. Every situation requires something different. I’m sure this over time will kind of go away and we’ll be able to focus on the season.”
Kenseth also spoke about the matter on Toyota Tuesday.
“Honestly, I’ve never had a problem with Joey before that,” Kenseth said. “We’ve always raced good together. The best case probably is for everybody to put it behind us and move on.”
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin discussed their past injuries and how they will affect the upcoming season. Following Busch’s leg-and-foot injury at Daytona last year, he won’t be taking part in plate races in the XFINITY Series any time soon.
“No restrictor plate races, I’m out of that stuff,” Busch said. “No more plate races because my wife won’t let me. And Joe [Gibbs, team owner]. Joe and Samantha [wife] have made that decision. I was thinking about it but they were like ‘no.'”
Hamlin says he is at 50 percent following another torn ACL late last season.
“I wish it was a little bit better,” Hamlin said. “Once I get my range of motion back, it’ll be fine. I am about 50 percent, but nothing that would keep me out of the racecar. I’m not where I want or should be right now, but I’m getting there.”
Brian Scott unveiled his No. 44 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, with the car featuring Albertsons/Shore Lodge as primary sponsors.
Jeff Gordon made his press conference debut as a FOX Sports analyst alongside Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip on Tuesday.
“I will say all my years of being in front of a camera or interacting with the production of a race being on TV has certainly given me some confidence in myself of what I’m saying, thinking about what’s going on, about the question and trying to answer it,” Gordon said. “But being on the other side of that, coming up with a thought with no question really being placed at you and then having to do it all within about 20 or 30 seconds. Those are the challenges that I see coming that are only going to happen through experience when you get used to it.”
With a new group of rookies embarking on 2016, there is always one eye on how they handle the pressure-packed situations. For Ryan Blaney, he has learned a thing or two from his dad Dave on how to gain respect at the uppermost level of stock car driving.
“My dad always told me at a young age that you have to give respect to get it back,” Blaney said. “I’ve worked very hard at trying to give as much respect as I could without just pulling out of the way of other people.”Rusty Wallace, 1989 Sprint Cup champion, commented on how he gained respect in his rookie year of 1984.
“I really got involved in the setup of the car,” Wallace said. “When people talk about me they said I was the guy under the hood messing with the shocks, springs and all that. I think that one particular thing, being really active with the car, helped gain respect amongst my peers in the garage area.
“Don’t stand back and say, ‘Everybody do it for me.’ That’s not going to cut it. That’s not going to win you races.”
A hot topic sparked from Frontstretch on Thursday was the possibility of some of NASCAR most elite talents taking part in the Indianapolis 500 in 2016 – an event that will hit its 100th race since 1909.
“This year, it’s the 100th anniversary and there is extra hype around it,” said Kurt Busch, who finished sixth in the 2014 Indy 500 before flying to compete in the Coca-Cola 600 later that day. “There are plenty of sponsorship opportunities that I think work for it, whether it is Haas Automation in the open-wheel world, Monster Energy from my side of things and Chevrolet, the manufacturer that wants to go in there and take one of their guys and cross-promote with it.”
Unlike Busch, Kyle Larson has never gotten behind the wheel of a Verizon IndyCar Series machine, but never say never for the future.
“I’m willing to but it just really comes down to if it would all just work out,” Larson said. “Someday, I’d definitely like to run the Indy 500. I don’t know if it’s in the near future but I’m still young and that race isn’t going anywhere so maybe some time before I die I can run the Indy 500.”
About the author
Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.
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