Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- To say that Brian Vickers appreciates the opportunity to drive the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet in place of injured Tony Stewart would be nothing short of a colossal understatement.
"If anything, I feel more rested than every single person in this garage," Vickers said on Friday at Daytona International Speedway, as Stewart-Haas announced him as the interim driver for Stewart during Speedweeks. "I'm more hungry than every single person in this garage.
"I'm happier to be here, more appreciative."
Vickers has good reason to feel both rested and appreciative. In fact, he has experienced more health issues over the past six years than the driver he is replacing. On three occasions during that span, Vickers has been forced to abandon a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ride because of blood clots, which originally were discovered in his legs and lungs in 2010.
"I think all those feelings and all those experiences and things I've learned will only contribute to success, not failure," said Vickers, who has received clearance to race from his doctors and from NASCAR. "I feel good about it. I'm pumped. It's a great opportunity."
But it's an opportunity that comes at Stewart's expense, as Vickers was quick to note.
"It's unfortunate that this is the car I'm in, because that means Tony's not here," Vickers said.
Stewart suffered a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain vehicle accident in the Glamis Dunes of California.
The three-time series champion had back surgery in North Carolina on Feb. 3 and will miss an indeterminate number of races as he recovers. Stewart, however, did hold an impromptu question-and-answer session with fans via the live-streaming application Periscope on Friday, as he worked out on a treadmill.
"We've been through a lot worse than this," Stewart told his fans during the session.
In fact, Stewart missed the final 15 races of the 2013 season after breaking his leg in a sprint car accident in Iowa. In 2014, he missed three races after a sprint car he was driving at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Speedway struck and killed fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr., who had exited his car and approached Stewart's after an accident involving the two cars.
Thus far, SHR hasn't named substitute drivers for Stewart beyond Daytona Speedweeks.
"Obviously, the situation is fluid," said Stewart-Haas president Brett Frood. "There are a lot of different scenarios and tentacles to every decision we're making. We want to focus on Speedweeks. We want to come in here and give ourselves the best opportunity to win (Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited) and the Daytona 500.
"Then we'll figured out Atlanta (Feb. 28) and the rest, and hopefully get Tony back in the car as soon as possible."
LOGANO STAYS MOTIVATED AS NEW SEASON APPROACHES
Two flirtations with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and the continuing strength of the Team Penske organization over the past two years have only intensified Joey Logano's desire to win a first title in the series.
To win, though, he'll have to avoid the sorts of pitfalls that have derailed him. In 2014, a pit road snafu ruined his chances in the Championship Round race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Last year, a feud with Matt Kenseth culminating in a wreck at Martinsville knocked Logano out of the Chase in the Round of 8.
"The last two years have been career seasons for me," Logano said on Friday at Daytona International Speedway. "I feel like we had two championship seasons without a trophy. We have a lot of confidence. We know what it takes to win this whole thing. We have been right on that edge. Arguably, with the most wins last year (six), we should have been there but that's the way the format is, and that's the way we play it, and it is what it is.
"I feel like I learned a lot as a driver the last few years and what I need to do to make it happen. I feel like I've found new levels as a driver to reach. I know I am a silver linings person, but I feel like that's something you have to have, that confidence and not get beat down. I feel like there's nothing to hold our heads down about. We've had two great seasons."
This past season included a victory in the Daytona 500, but Logano will have to buck the odds to win back-to-back editions of the Great American Race. The last driver to win consecutive Daytona 500s was Sterling Marlin in 1994 and 1995.
--Jimmie Johnson won the pole for Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited without getting behind the wheel of his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The starting order for the race was determined by a blind draw by crew chiefs in the Fan Zone at Daytona International Speedway.
The No. 48 team picked pit stall 43, closest to the entrance to pit road, leaving pit stall 4, closest to pit road exit, to Brad Keselowski, who drew the second starting position. AJ Allmendinger and Kyle Larson will occupy the second row for the start of the 75-lap non-points exhibition race.
--NASCAR and Chip Ganassi Racing on Friday announced sponsorship agreements with Credit One Bank, one of the largest and fastest-growing credit card issuers in the United States. Credit One Bank will carry the designation "Official Credit Card of NASCAR" and will serve as primary sponsor for three races on Jamie McMurray's No. 1 Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
--Kyle Larson led opening practice for the Sprint Unlimited with a lap at 199.344 mph. Kasey Kahne was second fastest at 199.159 mph. As is his custom, Jimmie Johnson eschewed the draft in favor of single-car runs and was 23rd quickest of the 25 cars.
Denny Hamlin topped the speed chart in the second Unlimited practice, posting a lap at 198.930 mph with a strong run from the back of a drafting pack. Clint Bowyer was second fastest at 195.253 mph.
Here are some of the major questions heading into the 67th season of stock car racing's premier series.
1. How will the new charter system affect the Sprint Cup in general and competition specifically?
The 36 charters are designed to provide long-term stability to team owners in terms of overall worth, cash flow and an exit strategy should they take on investors or close down. The fields have been reduced by three cars to 40 and the 36 charter teams are guaranteed a starting spot and purse money. With fewer starters, the charter team owners will receive more money from the purses, which are funded by promoters, contingency sponsors and the TV networks. As in the past, the more successful teams will receive larger shares.
The other angle is the number of "unchartered' teams able to make the show every week on speed is just four. As many as eight unchartered cars are expected on the official entry list for the Daytona 500 when it is released next week. That number likely will drops during the rest of the schedule.
Significantly, smaller team owners will be less encouraged to start races just to collect purse payouts because of less money in the purses for them. A new team owner who wants to step up to a chartered team status, or maybe try to lease a charter for a year, will have to have NASCAR's approval. So long "start and park," which is one of the sport's worst and longest running jokes where teams took the green flag and then parked their cars to avoid the expense of actually racing.
Interestingly, many of the smaller, independent teams who have stuck it out and tried to qualify for every race since 2013 were rewarded with charters. The legendary Wood Brothers, who have long cherry picked the schedule, did not receive one. The charter concept upholds the principle in place since the schedule was shortened in 1971 that teams who run all the races should be rewarded. In the past, that primarily meant payouts from the points fund.
As for qualifying in general, it's tough to pass on any given week. It's tough to win, too. Teams will continue to try to gain as many positions in qualifying as possible and confirm they have the speed to compete.
Overall, 40 well-prepared cars are plenty for any major league race. But it won't make any difference to the seven or eight teams running for victory on any given weekend. And everybody will still have to answer to sponsors after the checkered flag.
Roughly speaking, sponsors pay double what teams make during the course of a season. Under the new charter system, NASCAR remains a privately owned meritocracy, if that makes any sense. Founder Bill France Sr. and his successor Bill France Jr. firmly believed in private ownership of their racing series and having teams work as independent contractors with the most money directed to the most successful teams. Third generation owner Brian France is holding fast to the private ownership principle is counting on closer cooperation with teams to improve the market standing and earning power of his family business. That includes ownership of 12 of the tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule that host 19 of the 36 races.
2. Can Tony Stewart still make a success of his Sprint Cup season?
Just when NASCAR's mercurial bad boy seemed to be in prime physical and mental shape for a final run at a Chase slot -- and a comeback from three dismal seasons -- bad luck struck again. The burst fracture of a lower back vertebra resulting from an ATV accident is expected to keep Stewart out until May.
Stewart is likely to try to take a page from Kyle Busch's 2015 playbook and still qualify for the postseason by getting into the Top 30 in points and winning a race. (The charter program, on the other hand, may make it harder to do this given more teams being guaranteed a starting position.)
If Stewart makes it back by May, he can still get a crack at winning at Darlington Raceway for the first time. The Daytona 500 trophy is now out of reach for the three-time champion, who has yet to name a permanent substitute. Brian Vickers, who has suffered blood clots that forced him to the sideline, is expected to drive the Daytona 500 for Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing team co-owner Gene Haas, pending a thumbs up on his medical condition.
It's a shame a slimmed-down Stewart, who was at his contentious and humorous best during the preseason, could not run all the races in his final season. It's also a shame that NASCAR still has no set policy on how it will consider a Chase eligibility waiver for a driver not able to start all of the season'’s races. Why not use last season's Busch experience as a permanent template for what constitutes fair and valid participation by a potential champion?
3. This year's Daytona 500 marks the first NASCAR event at what is billed as the first motorsports stadium. The $400 million remodel of the Daytona International Speedway, which was slimmed down from 146,000 to 101,500 seats, includes five dramatic new entrances with escalators extending higher than a hook-and-ladder.
A walk-through during this year's Rolex 24 sports car race confirmed multi-tiered fan concourses will offer a far wider variety of concession stands and 1,398 flat-screen TVs are available to keep up with the action (two went missing during the sports car weekend) and interactive displays. Sponsors such as Toyota, Sunoco and Chevrolet have installed special displays on the concourses as well as fan activities near the entrances, including a ride along an off-road course by Toyota.
The real benefit is the mile-long main grandstand. The seats are roomier and are more sharply pitched to account for all the tiers, which afford good sight lines and a feeling of being closer to the action. The multitude of higher seats offer an excellent view of the back straight and all grandstand seats have a full view of the pits.
Like the new Yankee Stadium, to choose one comparison, fans can get from their seats to a choice of concessions easily and quickly without missing too much of the action because of the tiers. The wider apron in front of the seats at trackside provides a better safety margin. The well-heeled and well-connected, meanwhile, have nicely appointed suites (plus more of them) and a Daytona Club with all the amenities of fine dining.
For the first time since Bruton Smith upgraded Charlotte Motor Speedway with its office tower, Speedway Club and condominiums in 1984, the France family, owners of the International Speedway Corporation, have taken the lead in improving the fan experience with its remodel. Will the new Daytona stadium approach turn around fan interest and be a catalyst for other such projects at other NASCAR tracks? If nothing else, a full house on TV during races would be an upgrade to Daytona's old-fashioned grandstands, many of which went empty at the preliminary and summer races during recession and its aftermath.
4. One of the surprises of 2015 was the failure of either Roush-Fenway Racing or Chip Ganassi Racing to win a race. During this year's Media Tour, Jack Roush confessed his team got behind on the overall changes in the sport. "It's now a technology-driven sport and not a crew chief-driven sport," said Roush, who has restructured to account for the changes. Indeed, other teams acknowledge the interface between crew chiefs and the engineers who run simulation programs and post-race evaluations is more important than ever. Crew chiefs are now focused more on execution and less on development.
The Roush driving trio of Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne will still have to prove themselves. But it's more than just driving. Biffle said he was lucky to break into the top 10 last year during races because his cars were so far off the mark on aerodynamic downforce.
The Ganassi team -- like other major teams such as Hendrick Motorsports -- said the mid-season rules changes by NASCAR were a major distraction. But the addition of Rob Kauffman to the ownership by Ganassi and Felix Sabates plus some engineers from the now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing team should solve any manpower problems. Kyle Larson, who came close to a maiden victory in his sophomore season, has another year's experience and it's a contract year for Jamie McMurray, who made the Chase on points last year.
5. Other quick pit stops: Kyle Busch will try to repeat as the Sprint Cup champion for the first time and is one of the preseason favorites. ... Jimmie Johnson once again will try to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. with a seventh championship. Can he do it under the new elimination format? So far, he's 0-2 since clinching a six-pack in 2013. ... Joey Logano, dumped by Matt Kenseth during last year's Chase in pursuit of his first title, is another preseason favorite. ... Jeff Gordon, who opted for a broadcast career set to begin at Daytona, was replaced by Chase Elliott. He enters the chase for the rookie title as a favorite, but he won't get a free ride from fellow second generation driver Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers, returning to a full schedule for the first time since 2006. ... Of the 36 teams who hold charters, 15 have different crew chiefs from last season's final race. ... Maybe they won't be used, but a multitude of new SAFER barriers will make it more difficult for drivers to find new spots where they are needed. ... Fifteen years ago, Earnhardt Sr.'s fatal accident on the final lap of the Daytona 500 had a perverse impact on increased ticket sales and TV viewership until the recession hit. Can NASCAR's second season of a TV deal featuring the all-sports cable channels of Fox Broadcasting Company and NBCUniversal turn around ratings that have steadily decreased?
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and current team owner Richard Petty called Tuesday's announcement of a new charter agreement between the sanctioning body and Sprint Cup team owners "the second-most important thing that's ever happened in NASCAR."
Second, that is, to NASCAR's founding meeting at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., in December 1947.
Roush Fenway Racing President Steve Newmark characterized it as "a complete paradigm shift in how we operate."
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France introduced the new charter system as "a model that fits the 21st century and I think will serve us well into the future."
Joining France, Newmark and Petty for the landmark announcement at Charlotte Convention Center were NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton, NASCAR chief operating officer Brent Dewar, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O'Donnell, Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman and team owner Tommy Baldwin, all of whom have been working diligently to make the new system a reality.
The nine-year agreement, which mirrors the length of NASCAR's current contracts with its television partners, will bring greater stability, predictability and value to the ownership model and a substantially enhanced level of cooperation between team owners and NASCAR.
"It's sort of like Democrats and Republicans," Petty said. "They've been doing their thing, we've been doing our thing, meeting in the middle a little bit. We're getting rid of that. We're all going to be in the middle of the deal now."
The nuts and bolts of the agreement include the awarding of 36 charters to teams that have participated in the series full time during the 2013 through 2015 seasons. Under that criterion, Hendrick Motorsports was the only team to receive charters for all four of its entries.
The charters are transferable, meaning that, pending NASCAR's approval, they can be sold (or transferred short term for one year within the first five years of the granting of the charter).
Each of the 36 charters guarantees a starting position in each of the 36 Sprint Cup points races. With the field size reduced from 43 to 40 cars for each points race, a total of four starting spots will be available to non-chartered entries.
The agreement also provides for the creation of a team owners council, which will work closely with NASCAR on long-term governance issues. The sanctioning body will continue to make and enforce the rules of competition and conduct the races.
There will be performance requirements involved with retaining a charter, but, as Dewar put it, "Our goal is not to take charters away."
Rather, Dewar said, there will be a notification process that allows teams to maintain the good standing required to keep a charter.
Owners also will have increased involvement with NASCAR's digital operations. As Dewar pointed out, NASCAR.com generated more than one billion page views in 2015.
"Greater interest in the digital operations will create even more revenue opportunities for the industry at large," Dewar said. "The NASCAR digital model has been exploding over the last couple years. We've shared a lot of those metrics with you. In 2015 alone, we had 1.1 billion page views, 50 million video views and 4.1 billion social impressions.
"An important element of this agreement is to align the team owner model with the growth of the digital business, from expanding whether it be racing products such as RaceView or NASCAR Drive, to creating new mobile apps, eSports, gaming, virtual reality, to looking at connecting the team sites through uniform platforms to both amplify and grow the digital fan base.
"This is just the beginning of what our imagination can possibly provide. The charter team owners will have an increased participation also in the NASCAR governance as part of the team owner council, and a committee structure that enables a more disciplined collaborative process that will lead to better quality decisions across the industry ecosystem."
Asked what his father (Bill France Jr.) or grandfather (Bill France Sr.), both of whom ran the sport with iron hands, would have thought of the new charter system, France replied diplomatically.
"He (Bill France Jr.) would have obviously been conservative about this," France said. "That's a nice way to say that. But on the other hand, I will say, I know this from my own career, I always brought him things through the years, whether it was consolidating our TV rights way back in the day, whatever it was -- or the Chase, another good example -- where you would have thought he wouldn't have been in favor of it. But he always had enough confidence in me at the time and enough flexibility to know that he didn't have all the answers.
"I'll bet, once he saw all the things unfold, because, by the way, this is not a new idea that has been proposed to us recently, this has been an idea that was on the table in various forms for a long time. So we've never been able to sort it out.
"I'll bet if he saw what I saw by some very talented people on this stage and on both sides of the aisle, wait a minute, if we thought about it this way, I bet he would have gotten on board. That would be my prediction."
The three-time NASCAR champion will miss the start of the 2016 season -- his final one as a driver -- after suffering a fractured vertebra in a non-racing accident on Sunday and undergoing back surgery on Wednesday.
Stewart is expected back behind the wheel after a full recovery, but there is no timetable for his return. An interim driver had yet to be named.
Stewart-Haas Racing called Stewart's injury a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra. After attending the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Saturday, Stewart suffered the back injury in all-terrain vehicle accident in the dunes near the Arizona/California border on Sunday.
He was taken to a local hospital for evaluation before flying to Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday evening and being admitted to a hospital there. On Wednesday, he underwent surgery.
Stewart's team emphasized that the driver was awake and alert throughout the evaluation process after the accident and was able to move all his extremities.
The 44-year-old Stewart was to have competed in the Feb. 13 Sprint Unlimited non-points exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway. Now, he will miss that race and the season-opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points race, the Daytona 500 on Feb. 21 at 1 p.m. ET on FOX.
Winning that event for the first time was at the top of Stewart’s bucket list. This was to have been Stewart's last run in the Great American Race. At the end of the 2016 season, he will turn over the seat of the No. 14 Chevy to Clint Bowyer.
A burst fracture similar to Stewart's, described in medical language as a "traumatic spinal injury," is characterized as more serious than the type of compression fracture of the spine that Denny Hamlin suffered at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., in 2013.
Hamlin avoided surgery, missed four races and used a relief driver at Talladega before returning to full-time action.
His NASCAR team -- Stewart-Haas Racing -- released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying the three-time NASCAR champion was transported to a hospital following the accident.
Fox Sports reported that Stewart, 44, crashed an all-terrain vehicle in the San Diego area Sunday.
The press release said Stewart was awake and alert and able to move his legs and arms.
No other updates will be issued until Thursday, according to Stewart-Haas Racing.
The driver of the No. 14 car, Stewart has announced this will be his season.
The Sprint Cup season kicks off Feb. 21 with the Daytona 500, and Stewart is due to participate in the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona on Feb. 13.
Stewart sustained a double compound fracture of his right leg in 2013. In 2014, he was involved in a sprint-car crash that killed another driver who had left his car and was on the track.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Appropriately enough, after 24 hours of seemingly non-stop action, the fastest car still running was the overall winner of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Luis Felipe "Pipo" Derani, a baby-faced 22-year old racing prodigy from Brazil, took the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon in the No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Honda-powered Ligier JS P2, 26.166 seconds ahead of 2005 overall winner Max Angelleli in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP.
Derani brought home victory for teammates Scott Sharp, a Rolex 24 winner in 1996 (partnered, coincidentally, with Wayne Taylor), Ed Brown and Johannes van Overbeek.
Derani, who also gave Honda its first win in the season-opening event in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, is the fourth youngest overall winner of the race.
"The last two-and-a-half hours were pretty tough, pretty intense, with the Taylor brothers (Ricky and Jordan in the No. 10) pushing us really hard," Derani said. "So to not make any mistakes and increase the gap up to the end was amazing."
In the factory-backed GT Le Mans Class, Oliver Gavin held off Corvette Racing teammate Antonio Garcia in a side-by-side battle at the stripe to win the classification by .034 seconds in the No. 4 Corvette C7.R.
With two laps left, Garcia passed Gavin to the outside in the tri-oval, but with a deft crossover move, Gavin retook the top spot as the cars entered Turn 1.
"To race against Antonio is a pleasure," Gavin said. "He's an amazing teammate, and I knew I was going to have my work cut out to beat him."
In GT Daytona, Magnus Racing's Rene Rast nursed his No. 44 Audi R8 LMS GT3 to the finish line to hold off Nicky Catsburg in the No. 540 Porsche GT3 R by 3.048 seconds.
Rast's co-drivers were John Potter, Marco Seefried and 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco rookie of the year Andy Lally, who picked up his fifth class win (and fourth in a GT car) in the Rolex 24.
In a gut-wrenching late-race decision by the team, Rast let the No. 28 Lamborghini Huracan GT3 driven by Fabio Babini pass him with eight minutes left, calculating the Lamborghini wouldn't be able to finish the race on fuel. The gamble paid off.
But the Audi was short on fuel, too. Rast ran out of gas on the backstretch after taking the checkered flag.
"This means my little sister gets a watch," said Lally, who has won a total of eight Rolexes (and given six of the previous seven away) with his five class wins and three series titles. "This was teamwork. This was amazing. ...
"We were the little engine that could today. We probably had the slowest top speeds of everybody, but we had a really good-handling car, and we had superstars that were driving this thing who were my teammates."
Chris Miller, Stephen Simpson, Misha Goikhberg and Kenton Koch drove the No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Chevrolet-powered ORECA FLM 09 to a convincing four-lap victory in the Prototype Challenge class.
Finishing third in PC, nine laps down was the pole-winning No. 20 BAR1 Motorsports team that included full-time NASCAR driver Brendan Gaughan.
The No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 was the equal of the overall race winner, if not better, but engine failure in the eighth hour sidelined the entry piloted by NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger, Oswaldo Negri, John Pew and Olivier Pla.
In fact, soon after Allmendinger turned over the car to Negri as the clock approached midnight on Saturday, the car expired while leading.
The defending overall champion No. 02 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Prototype raced by NASCAR drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson and IndyCar stars Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan suffered brake problems while running second and lost five laps in the eighth hour.
But the coup de grace to the team's hopes for back-to-back wins came with 2 hours 50 minutes left, when Larson went off course in the West Hairpin and slammed nose-first into the tire barrier.
Again, brakes were the culprit.
"The four laps previous we started getting brake issues again," Larson said afterwards. "They said it looked like I had just lost all my rear brake, but it was locking my fronts up pretty easy, so I started braking really early. ...
"It didn't slow down enough to make the corner, and I drilled the barrier. We didn't have a shot to win anyway, but it does suck that we tore up a race car, and I'm disappointed."
The car left the track on a roll-back (though it did return after repairs), but Larson was unhurt in the crash. Now he can turn his attention to his full-time job, competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in the No. 42 Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
"I'm going toward the tire barriers really fast, and you're just like, 'I've never hit anything like that,'" Larson said. "So I was just kind of hoping it was going to be soft. It was pretty soft. I don't even remember anything hurting at all or whiplash or nothing.
"I'm glad I'm going to be here in two weeks in a stock car."
Note: As soon as the race was over, Angelelli was taken to a local hospital for observation and evaluation. Specific information about his condition was not available, other than that Angelelli was "conscious and stable."
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The No. 60 Honda-powered Ligier JS P2 survived an early incident to hold the overall lead at the five-hour mark of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the season-opening race of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Teamed with three members of Michael Shank Racing's 2012 winning team --NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver AJ Allmendinger, Ozz Negri and John Pew --Frenchman Olivier Pla passed Jonathan Bomarito for the top spot early in the fifth hour of competition and was still out front after an exchange of pit stops on Laps 148 and 149.
Jonny Adam was second in the No. 31 Corvette DP, 33 seconds behind Pla, when the No. 38 Prototype Challenge entry stalled near the Bus Stop chicane to bring out the fourth full-course caution of the race.
That yellow, which occurred four hours and 57 minutes after the 2:40 p.m. ET green flag, was good news for teams -- including defending champions Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing -- who were beset with issues from the outset.
In the factory GT Le Mans (GTLM) class, Mike Rockenfeller led at the caution in the Corvette C7.R he shares with Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia.
The early portion of the race was fraught with incidents. In the return of the Ford GT to competitive racing in the GTLM class, both the No. 66 (with Joey Hand behind the wheel) and the No. 67 (piloted by Ryan Briscoe in the opening stint) ultimately suffered gearbox problems.
The No. 66 also experienced a costly brake line issue and sudden loss of power. Both cars lost double-digit laps and plummeted down the running order.
"It's one of those things," Hand said of the GT's first trip for Ford Chip Ganassi Racing. "We've got to get a 24 Hours under our belts just to learn what to look for."
Scott Pruett's bid for a record sixth overall win took a blow when Action Express teammate Joao Barbosa went off course in the infield and nosed gently into a tire barrier. The No. 5 Corvette DP lost nearly a minute to the leader and fell to 10th overall.
Two full-course yellows, however, brought the No. 5 back into the mix, and at the four-hour mark, Christian Fittipaldi had driven the car back to sixth place, less than seven seconds off the lead.
Shortly after a return to green following the second full-course caution of the race, minutes short of the two-hour mark, the No. 60 Ligier JS P2, then piloted by pro-am driver John Pew, plowed into the back of the No. 2 Ligier, which slowed suddenly in heavy traffic near the entrance to the Bus Stop, with Johannes van Overbeek at the controls.
But the No. 60 car sustained only minor damage and, with Olivier Pla behind the wheel -- and Allmendinger still awaiting his first stint -- drove to the front of the field in the fifth hour and quickly pulled away from the Mazda Prototype driven by Bomarito.
Mishaps, pit stops and driver changes put the No. 02 defending champion Ganassi Ford EcoBoost Riley DP out front with Dixon behind the wheel. The IndyCar star held the top spot until he pitted during the third hour to hand the car over to McMurray.
Dixon's stop gave the lead back to the futuristic DeltaWing DWC13 driven by Katherine Legge for her second run at the front of the field. Legge stayed there until she brought the No. 0 to the pits and turned the car over to teammate Andy Meyrick.
Since the DeltaWing's debut in 2013, reliability has been an issue, but Legge remained optimistic about her team's chances in this year's race.
"We're more reliable than we've ever been, and we've changed all the components," Legge said after her long open stint in the car. "It was the gear box failure that was our nemesis, and we've changed everything within that ...
"But we haven't done any 24-hour simulation tests or anything like that, so we are still crossing our fingers, too. It's going to be luck. It's going to be attrition. It'’s going to be if anybody drives into us -- the normal stuff -- but we're a lot closer to being there."
Luck, however, wasn't on the side of the DeltaWing. Meyrick pitted from the lead in the fourth hour but drew a penalty for spinning his wheels on pit road while the car was jacked up.
That put McMurray back on top with a lead of 20 seconds over the No. 10 Corvette DP, with Max Angelelli having taken the wheel from Jordan Taylor.
Things got worse for the DeltaWing. Chris Cumming stopped in the middle of the track in the No. 8 Prototype Challenge entry, unable to move. Meyrick rammed squarely into the stalled car, destroying the No. 0, which left the track on a wrecker.
Meyrick and Cumming both visited the infield care center. Meyrick was examined and released quickly. Cumming was treated and released but was not cleared to resume racing.
The accident brought out the third full-course yellow, and the fortunes of the defending champions worsened shortly thereafter. Seconds after the race returned to green, contact with the No. 4 GTLM Corvette C7.R of Tommy Milner sent McMurray spinning in the No. 02 Prototype, dropping him to ninth in the running order.
Kanaan took over for the 2010 Daytona 500 winner under the caution that crossed the cusp of the fifth hour. By then, McMurray had driven the car back to seventh.
"The car's better than I thought it would be," McMurray said optimistically, moments before Kanaan took the green to restart the race.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The absence of a former teammate, the late Justin Wilson, weighed heavily on AJ Allmendinger and his teammates at Michael Shank Racing as the Rolex 24 at Daytona approached.
But the tragic loss of Wilson in a freak IndyCar accident last year at Pocono Raceway also provides a source of inspiration and motivation for Allmendinger, who teamed with Wilson, Oswaldo Negri and John Pew to win the 2012 Rolex 24.
"Yeah, it's tough," Allmendinger told the NASCAR Wire Service on Friday, roughly 24 hours before the start of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship's season-opening race. "You can ask all of us -- Mike (Shank) especially.
"We all have a little chip on our shoulder. He's sitting up there watching us, and it would make all of us a little more proud to win this thing, because we all want to win it for him and Julia (Wilson's widow) and the kids. It's difficult. It's strange being here without him."
Allmendinger was particularly close to Wilson, an ebullient driver who was beloved throughout the garage.
"We shared a bond together," Allmendinger said, the day after Negri qualified Shank's No. 60 Honda-powered Ligier JS P2 in third position among the Prototypes for the start of the Rolex 24. "That was something that made it so fun coming to this race, the bond that Ozz and I and John and JWil had gotten to share.
"And even last year, when he wasn't driving with us, he was still here. You could still joke around with him. We all knew that, when Justin was around the race track, he was smiling and having a good time -- or he was at least faking it if he wasn't driving, 'cause we all hate being at a race track and not driving."
Olivier Pla has joined Allmendinger, Negri and Pew on the Shank team, and Allmendinger thinks they have an excellent chance to return to the winner's circle.
"Last year (the team's first with the Ligier), I thought we had a pretty good shot at it, but with all the work they've put in (since then), the car's a lot more developed. When Michael Shank Racing came here last year with the car, heck, Ozz and John had barely sat in the thing and ran a couple of laps, and we were going green.
"So, with a year of development on it and how the car feels, it's a great shot, but it's 24 hours. ... You've got to get to the end of a 24-hour race before you worry about winning it."
LARSON MEETS NEW CREW CHIEF
Kyle Larson has a new crew chief in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but it took a while before the driver actually had his first face-to-face meeting with Chad Johnston, the successor to Chris Heroy on the pit box for the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
The delay was understandable. Larson sped through a whirlwind offseason where, among other things, he competed in the Chili Bowl, the premier event for Midget cars, in Tulsa, Okla.
Johnston, who comes to Ganassi after two years as Tony Stewart's crew chief, paid a visit to the simulator with Larson, who will start his third full season in Cup racing in February.
"He could see my driving style a little bit, even though the simulator isn't quite (the same as on-track driving)," Larson told the NASCAR Wire Service a day before he begins his defense of the Rolex 24 title he won with Jamie McMurray, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan last year.
"We went through some changes, and the communication was nice. He's a really good guy, really quiet, calm and focused. So I think we'll be really good."
Johnston's experience with Stewart should translate well to Larson's effort.
"Me and Tony, I feel like aside from attitude, have a pretty similar feel as far as driving race cars and how we communicate about race cars," Larson said. "So I don't think it's going to be too much of a transition, but you don't really know until it actually happens."
CHILDRESS, GANASSI TO JOIN MOTORSPORTS HALL
The new class of inductees to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America includes NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owners Chip Ganassi and Richard Childress, who join a diverse 2016 group that includes driver and broadcaster Sam Posey, NHRA announcer Dave McClelland, former FIA land speed record holder Gary Gabelich, AMA racer Everett Brashear and former Indy 500 winner Bob Sweikert.
This year, the Hall of Fame moves from its Detroit-area home to the former Daytona USA building outside Daytona International Speedway, which recently completed its $400-million Daytona Rising transformation.
"This is a special honor to be recognized by the Motorsports Hall of Fame," Childress said. "To be part of the first class inducted at the newly renovated Daytona International Speedway will be unique, and the racers enshrined in this hall of fame are from across the entire motorsports world.
"I want to thank (president) Ron Watson and all of the Motorsports Hall of Fame's board members for considering me for this prestigious award."
The induction ceremony for the 2016 class is scheduled for June 29 at Daytona.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As you walk toward the Turn 1 side of Daytona International Speedway, outside the track, you will see a slogan in huge letters on the back side of the new grandstand.
"Be Inspired," reads the message on the "injector" sponsored by Florida Hospital.
That slogan, however, could apply to the entire $400-million capital project, aptly named "Daytona Rising," that transformed the speedway into the first true motorsports stadium.
The re-imagining of Daytona, as International Speedway Corporation CEO Lesa France Kennedy likes to call it, traces its origins to an inspiration and a vision of what a motorsports facility could become. And with the project ready for fans who will flock to the Daytona 500 on Feb. 21 (1 p.m. ET on FOX), the new facility is certain to be an inspiration to those who use it as well as to executives at other race tracks who will be inspired by what Daytona has accomplished.
Kennedy and Jim France, vice chairman and executive vice president of NASCAR, officially opened the new facility in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday afternoon, with track president Joie Chitwood III also holding court in the expansive new concourse that overlooks the start/finish line at the Birthplace of Speed.
"They tell me we're on time and on budget," Jim France said proudly after the ceremony. "I haven't seen the finals yet, but I think we had an excellent team of folks within our company and some really great partners in the construction process, all the way through from the steelworkers -- it didn't matter who it was on the project. They were all first-class."
France won't miss the "old Daytona" because its spirit, the soul of Bill France Sr.'s original vision, remains. The new facility is simply an extension of that vision -- and a massive one at that.
"We've still got the original layout of the track, and it's been repaved recently, but it's Daytona," France said. "It's our Super Bowl event (the Daytona 500) ... and we truly now have a Super Bowl facility."
The concourse is wide and spacious. On either side are bars where fans can congregate on terraces after a short walk from their seats. The injectors -- the new term for the structures and routing that usher fans into the speedway -- feature long escalators that bring fans from ground level to the concourse.
Up in the towers above the mile-long grandstand, the luxury suites will rival, if not put to shame, the prime hospitality areas in the most opulent of NFL Stadiums.
From the ceiling of the Rolex 24 Lounge hangs a large chandelier that features the shapes of every ISC race track in order of size, from .526-mile Martinsville at the bottom to 2.66-mile Talladega at the top.
What fans won't see, but will certainly use, is the extensive availability of technology built into the transformed speedway. And now Chitwood and his staff at the speedway simply have to wait for fans to arrive en masse for Speedweeks.
"As exciting as it is today, it's really challenging to let down and relax, because now all the fans are going to show up -- for the Rolex 24 (this weekend) and the Daytona 500," Chitwood said after the ribbon cutting. "Is our team ready? Have we done good training? Do all the credentials make sense? Do all the concession stands work?
"Can we respond to any incidents during the event? 'Oh, no, the oven goes down.' 'Oh, no, there's a leak.' So, for me, it's probably going to be Feb. 22 (the day after the Daytona 500) before I catch my breath. As exciting as it is to cut the ribbon today, now we have to make sure the fans really enjoy their experience."
Toward that end, Chitwood has called on the full resources of ISC.
"We have the team mobilized," Chitwood said. "I have every track president in the ISC system working during Speedweeks. I have other staff from other tracks here working for that event. I have every person in the corporate office working that weekend.
"We're going to make sure we're prepared to manage anything that comes up. No one can blame us for not having enough people on property to answer questions, see problems before they happen and just making sure that, if we can stop a misstep from happening, we will."
Chitwood nevertheless took a moment to reflect on the project he help shepherd from a vision to a reality.
"Probably where I get the most exited or the most proud is that the France family entrusted me with their flagship property," Chitwood said. "Being around Jim France and Lesa Kennedy and understanding what Big Bill did in the late '50s, and the legacy he created. ... one of the things we all talk about with our staff -- we have to live up to that.
"This is Daytona International Speedway. Big Bill built this place. We are not going to misstep ... and I'm proud to say, I think we nailed it. When I see Jim France walk around this property, and he's smiling, and he's excited, and Lesa's excited, I think we lived up to that vision, and I'm just proud that they entrusted me with that job.
"As stressful and as tough as it was over two and a half years, these are the things that you want to be involved in if you're in our sport. ... You want to be given a chance to do something impactful. I think the Daytona team had that chance, and they excelled."
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Driving a new Prototype developed and built in his native Russia, IndyCar driver Mikhail Aleshin won the top starting spot for the Rolex 24 at Daytona with the ninth fastest time of Thursday's qualifying sessions on the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course.
Englishman Nick Tandy had the fastest lap, leading a Porsche sweep of the top two starting spots in the highly competitive GTLM Class, touring the course at 105.561 mph and edging fellow Porsche North America team car driver Frederic Makowiecki for the top starting spot in the prestigious endurance race, which starts at 2:40 p.m. ET Saturday (on FS1).
On a rain-drenched afternoon, Tandy posted his lap on Michelin tires before conditions deteriorated even further. Accordingly, the GTLM cars were appreciably faster than the Prototype and Prototype Challenge entries.
“It was a funny situation because we're driving different tires (Continental) from the GTs," said Aleshin, whose fastest clocking in the No. 37 Nissan-powered Russian BR01 was 101.882 mph. "At the end of the session, track conditions became worse. ...
"On my fastest lap, I almost hit the wall a couple times, but surprising to myself as well, I stayed on the track and managed to continue the lap, which put me on the pole."
Aleshin, whose co-drivers are Maurizio Mediani, Nicolas Minassian and Kirill Ladygin, will lead the field to green on Saturday afternoon under a starting order that features Prototypes first, then Prototype Challenge, GTLM and GTD classes.
Luis Filipe Derani was the second fastest qualifier in Prototypes, with Oswaldi Negri third in the No. 60 Honda-powered Ligier JS P2. Negri is teaming with NASCAR Sprint Cup driver AJ Allmendinger, John Pew and Olivier Pla. All but Pla were part of the 2012 overall winning team, which included the late Justin Wilson.
The defending Rolex 24 winners -- NASCAR drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson and IndyCar stars Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan -- had an adventurous qualifying session that included an off-course excursion at the entrance to Turn 1.
With Dixon behind the wheel, the No. 02 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing entry was seventh fastest among the Prototypes and 32nd overall.
Johnny Mowlem led the PC Class at 101.951 mph. NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Brendan Gaughan was a late addition to the No. 20 ORECA FLM09/Chevrolet team, which includes Tomy Drissi, Marc Drumwright and Ricardo Vera.
Mowlem's ORECA FLM 09 was eighth overall and, surprisingly, faster than any of the entries in the Prototype Class.
Driving the No. 911 Porsche North America 911 RSR, Tandy put down the lap of the day.
"When we went out under green, there was only time for one flying lap," Tandy said. "I understood that early, so I made some space. It was always good to be following some cars in front because they take away some water in front of you.
"But the pressure was on all of us to not go off but still do a time to be in front of the GTD group. The risk of going off versus the reward of being further up the grid was quite high. So, yes, it was a very good result."
Norbert Siedler of Austria was fastest in the GTD Class with a lap at 101.878 mph in the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche GT3 R.
In IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge qualifying, Hugh Plumb put the No. 13 Rum Bum Racing GS Class Porsche 997 he shares with brother Matt Plumb on the pole for Friday’s BMW Performance 200 (1:45 p.m. ET), running 96.730 mph on his sixth lap of the session.
Elliott Skeer made a pole-winning run in the ST Class No. 8 Rebel Rock Racing Porsche Cayman he shares with Scotsman Robin Liddell, posting his best lap at 93.316 mph.
The Ford GT entries struggled in the wet in their return to competitive racing in the GTLM Class. Joey Hand was ninth fastest in the class (15th overall) in the No. 66. Ford Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe was 10th in the class and 25th overall in the No. 67.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Four legendary drivers and one titan of a track owner are the latest additions to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
On Saturday afternoon at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., O. Bruton Smith, executive chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., entered the Hall with "Iceman" Terry Labonte, six-time NASCAR Modified champion Jerry Cook, 1970 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Bobby Isaac and flamboyant Curtis Turner, who was instrumental in raising the profile of stock car racing during NASCAR's early days.
Introduced by current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman, Isaac was first to be inducted during a ceremony delayed for one day by winter storm Jonas. Son Randy Isaac performed the honors, with wife Patsy accepting on behalf of her late husband.
"Bobby Isaac is a true American rages-to-riches story," Patsy Isaac said. "He was born into a poor family in Catawba County in 1932. He was the second youngest of nine children and was on his own by the age of 12.
"One fateful night, Bobby attended a race at Hickory Speedway. Not having enough money to purchase a ticket, he watched the race from a tree outside the track. He was inspired to believe that racing was his opportunity for a better life.
"He loved to win, but he hated to lose, and he used this passion to drive his success."
Isaac passed away in 1977, seven years after winning his championship in NASCAR's premier division, and those who weren't fortunate enough to have seen him on the track missed one of the fiercest competitors in the history of NASCAR racing.
In 308 starts, Isaac won 37 races and 49 poles, 10th most all-time in the latter category. Remarkably, he converted 20 of those poles into race wins. Thirty-six of his victories came during a prolific period from 1968 through 1972, when Isaac was driving the No. 71 K&K Insurance Dodge owned by Nord Krauskopf.
During his championship season, Isaac visited Victory Lane 11 times in 47 starts, a year after winning an extraordinary 17 times in 50 races and finishing sixth in the series standings. Isaac still holds the record for poles in a single season (19 in 1969).
Cook, part of a remarkable era in NASCAR Modified racing, was the second member of the class of 2016 to enter the Hall. During a 15-year span, Cook and Richie Evans, a nine-time champion and a 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, kept the Modified trophy in Rome, N.Y., where they both lived.
It's a tribute to Cook's talent and tenacity that he was able to win six titles, including four straight from 1974 through 1977, going head-to-head against the foremost Modified driver in the history of the sport.
Cook's contribution, however, isn't limited to his on-track performance. As a long-time NASCAR executive, Cook has been instrumental in the streamlining, development and promotion of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.
Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart introduced Cook with the words "Today one of my favorite drivers takes his rightful place among the immortals in the NASCAR Hall of Fame."
An emotional Cook humbly accepted the honor, which was conferred on him by old friend and former NASCAR senior vice president of competition Robin Pemberton.
"I have been very fortunate to make a living doing something that I really love, and I would not trade it for anything," Cook said during his induction speech. "When I first started racing, I wondered how long I could do this before I had to get a real job, but somehow, I always had money in my pocket, so I just kept racing.
"In fact, my Mother never thought that I had a real job until I went to work for NASCAR ... NASCAR's a family, and this is our house. Thanks for bringing me to our house."
Always larger than life, and sometimes controversial, Turner earned the well-deserved nickname "Babe Ruth of stock car racing" for his hard-charging aggressiveness on the race track and his equally full-throttle lifestyle off the dirt and pavement.
A 17-time winner at NASCAR's highest level, Turner collected most of his victories on short asphalt and dirt ovals, but he also triumphed in the 1956 Southern 500 at Darlington and the 1965 American 500 at Rockingham, driving a No. 41 Ford fielded by the Wood Brothers in the inaugural Cup race at the one-mile track.
Turner is the only driver in the history of NASCAR's top division to have won from the pole while leading every lap in two consecutive races, a feat he accomplished at Rochester, N.Y., and Charlotte in 1950.
"Curtis was recognized nationally as THE race driver," said fellow inductee Bruton Smith, who joined forces with Turner in spearheading the construction of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Turner, who also won 38 races in 78 starts in NASCAR's Convertible Series was introduced by 2014 Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick and inducted by Hall of Fame member Leonard Wood. Turner's daughter, Margaret Sue Turner Wright, accepted the honor.
"Curtis Turner was really many things to many people," Wright said. "He was a star to some people, a great race car driver to many people, a track president, track promoter and an owner -- and entrepreneur. But we just called him 'Dad' or 'Daddy.'
"... If there was anything he ever wanted to do -- a project or a new business -- he never let doubt get in the way. He just went full speed ahead into his dreams, and that's inspiring."
Smith, the fourth inductee from the 2016 class, set a new standard of opulence in NASCAR facilities. Many consider Bristol Motor Speedway his most visionary contribution to the sport. There, he took a half-mile short track in rural Tennessee and transformed it into a 160,000-seat racing coliseum.
Charlotte Motor Speedway, however, was the foundation of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which has grown to include eight race tracks that host a combined total of 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points races, as well as the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
Introduced by 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Smith, the top vote-getter in the 2016 class, was ushered into the Hall by three-time Cup champion and Hall of fame member Darrell Waltrip.
"I want to thank all the people that voted for me," the effervescent Smith said. "That was wonderful. You took a chance, but you know how it is. When you got married, you took a chance. I'm glad you voted for me -- and I'm here!"
Smith said originally he wanted to be a race car driver and bought a car for $700.
"But my mom had a problem with it, and she said, 'I wish you wouldn't do that,' " Smith said. "I heard that a dozen times, I guess, and my mother was a very religious person. My mom started praying I would quit.
"I knew then, when she did that, it was time for me to quit, because I was not going to compete with that. So that's when I quit and went over to the other side, and I started promoting races."
Known as "Iceman" for his cool demeanor and "Iron Man" for his streak of 655 straight starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (fifth most all-time), Labonte was the fifth and final inductee of the evening.
Labonte won championships in NASCAR's top series 12 years apart, the first for owner Billy Hagan in 1984 and the second for Hendrick Motorsports in 1996. Labonte's primary competition for the second title was teammate Jeff Gordon, who finished second in the standings during a run of three championships in four years.
"He battled Jeff Gordon for the championship when Jeff Gordon was in his prime -- and beat him," team owner Rick Hendrick said during a question-and-session with reporters on the recent Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. "He's one of the toughest people I've ever met, but he's a team player, and such a good person."
Labonte was introduced by reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch and inducted by daughter Kristy Garrett. Labonte then gave a nod to the corps of drivers who had preceded him into the Hall.
"I might be in the Hall of Fame today with you guys, but you guys will still always be my heroes, and I appreciate everything that you guys did for our sport," he said.
In his acceptance speech, the typically reticent champion couldn't resist a joke at the expense of his wife Kim.
"We were riding down the road the other day, and Kim looked at me and said, 'Hey, have you even thought about a speech for the Hall of Fame?'
"And I looked at her and said, 'That's news to me. Nobody's told me anything about a speech for the Hall of Fame' ... I thought right there, you know I've got the perfect wife. We've been married 37 years, and she still believes everything I tell her."
Labonte got uncharacteristically emotional, however, in address brother Bobby Labonte, who won the Cup championship in 2000.
"It's not everybody who gets to do this and race in this series, much less do it with your brother," Labonte said. "And I'll tell you what, we had some great years that we raced together. We have some memories that will last a lifetime. And I love you, too, buddy."
Also honored on Saturday were Darlington Raceway developer Harold Brasington, who was named Landmark Award Winner for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR, and popular Fox Sports broadcaster Steve Byrnes, who earned the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence.
Beloved by colleagues, competitors and fans alike, Byrnes passed away in April after a long, courageous and inspirational battle against cancer.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tony Stewart might be in the best shape of his life -- and just in time.
At 44, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has declared 2016 his final Sprint Cup season as a driver and he's doing everything in his power to make it memorable.
"I'm eating better, drinking better, working out, doing stuff I swore I would never do -- and I'm doing it in my last year," Stewart said Thursday during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour.
"I've changed my diet. I've changed everything for this year, so if anybody has any questions about how dedicated we are to having the best year we possibly could have; that's the answer. I'm more excited about this year than I have been in a long time."
Stewart would love to emulate the farewell season enjoyed by Jeff Gordon, who went into the final race of the 2015 season with a shot at his fifth Sprint Cup title.
"That was 99 percent of a perfect (final) season," Stewart said. "I don't have any grand illusions that I'm going to have that kind of year. It may or may not be in our cards. We're going to give 100 percent, but the main focus will be to have fun this last year. If we can go out and win races and have an opportunity, trust me, I'll be ready."
In his dream scenario, Stewart said he would win the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 at Darlington and a Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway to give him checkered flags at every track on the circuit.
Kurt Busch said he wouldn't put anything past Stewart, who is both his teammate and boss.
"Jeff Gordon had a fantastic final season. I don't see why Tony Stewart can't do the same thing," he said. "He's a three-time champion in stock cars, he's a champion from open-wheel ... he's won in everything. Having a teammate and a car owner going through a retirement tour, there will be times when I'll be giving that extra five percent on a given day to help him out."
Stewart knows that two more victories would get him to 50, but even one win would be enough to get him to the Chase with a shot at one last title. No matter what, he insists this will be his Sprint Cup swan song.
"Even if we went out there and won 15 races and won the championship, we're done," he said. "When Homestead happens, no matter how the year went, we're done. If it's a terrible year, I'm not going to sit there and go, 'Wow, that defined my career,' because the stats will define how we did over 18 years."
Stewart's past two seasons have not been indicative of his 48 career wins and 300 top-10 finishes in 590 Sprint Cup starts. He has not won a race since June 2, 2013, at Dover and failed to notch a top-five finish last season.
There have been extenuating circumstances -- a broken leg that halted his 2013 season and the tragic incident in August 2014 when Stewart struck and killed a fellow competitor while running a caution lap during a sprint car race in upstate New York.
Although it will be Stewart's final season as a Cup driver, he'll remain active as a co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing with Gene Haas, participating in the day-to-day operations of a high-profile team with championship expectations.
"I think we have two guys who definitely have a great opportunity to race for a championship (this year)," said Stewart, referring to 2014 Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick and Busch, a former champ who finished eighth in points last season.
Only Kyle Busch stood between Kevin Harvick and a second consecutive Sprint Cup title. Harvick, who turned 40 in December, has eight victories in his two seasons with Stewart-Haas. He registered career highs in top 10s (23) and laps led last season when he also matched his career best with an average finishing position of 8.7.
Kurt Busch had two victories and three poles in 2015. Matching a career high with 21 top-10 finishes (in 33 starts), Busch finished eighth in points.
"We need to bump it up another spot," he said. "We know we did good things, (but) we need more top fives."
That leaves Danica Patrick, 34, who has yet to register a top-five finish in 118 Sprint Cup starts. She managed two top 10s last season -- a seventh at Martinsville and a ninth at Bristol -- but finished no better than 15th in any of her final 28 races.
"Clearly, I need to be able to finish better to be able to make the Chase," said Patrick, who has replaced Go Daddy with Nature's Bakery as her primary sponsor.
"She understands how the cars work," said Haas, noting that Patrick has been teamed with a new crew chief in Billy Scott. "She understands all the ins and outs of racing a Cup car. Now it's time for her to concentrate on going faster. We realize she's a unique talent out there and we're just trying to find a more accurate combination that will provide better results."
Stewart, for his part, continues to publicly supportive on NASCAR's most prominent female competitor.
"I don't know what it's going to take. I still stand behind the fact that she hasn't spent a ton of time in these cars," Stewart said. "You can say she's been in the Cup Series for four years, but most guys by the time they've got to the Cup Series have had a lot of time in a stock car. She did not have that.
"So I would say if she just keeps making forward progress, that that's going to be a good year. It's so hard to pinpoint and say 'this is what the goal is. This is what we expect. If her stats get better than what they were last year, that's what we look at as improvement. As long as we're moving the needle forward and not backward, that's what we want to do."
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Richard Childress Racing drivers Ryan Newman and Paul Menard qualified for last year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Austin Dillon didn't make NASCAR's playoff in his sophomore season at the sport's highest level, but this year, he's determined to change that scenario and put his No. 3 Chevrolet "where it deserves to be."
Dillon's Chevy got a jump-start after the 15th race of the 2015 season when veteran crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe took over the pit box. Four of Dillon's top-10 finishes last year came after Labbe's arrival.
"I'm really excited about what we've built on last year," Dillon told the NASCAR Wire Service on Thursday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame after RCR's formal presentation during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. "I think Slugger switching over halfway through the year gave a new life to our team.
"I'm looking back at my seasons in Truck and Xfinity and what I've been able to accomplish in the Xfinity races I ran last year (four victories and 16 top 10s in 20 starts). I'm beating guys that run well in the Cup series on Saturday and I want that same result on Sunday."
The difference was a pickup in speed. In the second half of the season, Dillon started running at or near the front of the Sprint Cup field.
"I think last year, leading laps at Michigan and running up front in a lot of races toward the end of the year was big," he said. "I think it was just a good change of momentum. Working with Slugger -- he has the same mentality that I have toward sports in general and that's to eliminate mistakes, talk about 'em and trying to be the best we can be at every aspect of racing."
Though both Newman and Menard made the Chase in 2015, no Cup driver at RCR won a race. That's something else Dillon plans to change.
"Getting to Victory Lane is by far our main goal," he said. "Then, when you get to the Chase, I think the aspect changes again to the championship. Our first goal is to win at least one of the first (26) races to get in the Chase, and then to win again to move on to the next round.
"I truthfully think we made some headway last year on our speed at RCR. When you can go out and lead laps and run up front, eventually that win is coming. You have to be able to lead laps and run up front to accomplish things. Before halfway through the season, I don't think we had the speed to do that.
"That's hard on your confidence. It's hard to get up for every race and to be confident with what you've got. We've put a lot of effort into it. I think the equipment's there at RCR and now it's a matter of putting it all together."
If Dillon is determined to win a race this year, team owner Richard Childress, Dillon's grandfather, all but guaranteed that would happen.
"We've got to win this year in Cup," Childress said. "We've been consistent, and that's what it takes, but we want to win in the Cup series -- and we will this year."
RCR forms new alliance with Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing
With former RCR partner Furniture Row Racing switching from Chevrolet to Toyota this season, Childress has taken on a new alliance as a technical partner and engine supplier to Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing.
That team, in turn, is a new partnership between Circle Sport Racing owner Joe Falk and Leavine Family Racing owner Bob Leavine, who last year fielded Fords for Michael McDowell in 16 of 36 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points races.
Circle Sport-Leavine will run the full schedule in 2016, with McDowell sharing the seat time of the No. 95 Chevy with Ty Dillon, as the younger Dillon brother prepares for a full-time Cup career.
"This is a big step for our competition program," McDowell said. "The technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing is a huge asset to our growing team, and we'll have access to some of the top equipment in the Cup series."
Circle Sport-Leavine joins JTG/Daugherty Racing and Germain Racing as an RCR partner.
New entitlement for Kentucky Speedway
Kentucky Speedway announced Thursday a new title sponsor for its July 8 NASCAR Xfinity Series race. Alsco, which has supplied race-day uniforms to the track and which also has a sponsorship presence with Richard Childress Racing, has expanded its role with the entitlement of the Alsco 300.
"This is one of the most important sponsorship deals we've ever done at Kentucky Speedway," track general manager Mark Simendinger said. "This deal says a lot about where we want to go and where Kentucky is right now. This is a huge win for us, and we couldn't be more proud to be associated with them."
By the time that race takes place, Kentucky Speedway will have finished repaving the racing surface, a project that includes reconfiguring Turns 1 and 2 to different specifications from Turns 3 and 4, a la Darlington.
At 23, the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates isn't outwardly expressing complete urgency to win his next race. But that pressure to not only win, but make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is building.
"There were really no expectations when I first got into Cup," said Larson, speaking at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. "Then, by the end of the (first full) season, everybody is just waiting for me to win.
"I want to be in the Cup Series for a long time. I feel like if you don't win in the first few years, you're not the real deal and you're not going to be here for very long. So this is definitely a year I feel like we need to get a win and show that I'm capable of being a Cup racer for a long time."
A three-time winner in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Larson is winless in his first 75 Cup starts. With 10 top-five finishes (eight in his 2014 Sunoco Rookie of the Year season), he has come close – notably at the 2015 season finale at Homestead where a late caution flag thwarted his run and relegated him to a fifth-place finish.
"I'm definitely not happy that I haven't won a race yet, but we have been close a handful of times which is nice," Larson said. "It's not like we're running outside the top 10 or 15 all the time. We've contended for wins."
To hopefully get him over the hump, Ganassi recruited Tony Stewart's former crew chief Chad Johnston, who along with Jamie McMurray and his crew chief Matt McCall are making it a priority to improve on mile-and-a-half tracks.
"We just were inconsistent last year," Larson said. "We had top-10 or top-12 speed most weekends. But whatever was the case, the last quarter of a race we would fall apart. Either it (was me) or decision making on the box or the pit crew – we would fall apart. Hopefully, we've all learned from that."
As his clock ticks, one thing Larson refuses to use as an excuse is his personal life, including the birth of his son Owen in December 2014. He says having Katelyn and Owen at the track for the majority of races had no effect on performance.
"Personally, I don't think that stuff affects anybody," Larson said. "I still know what my job is in the race car, so even if you're up at 3:30 in the morning and back asleep at 4:15, I don't think it affects you on race day. It makes (life at) the race track more fun, for sure. You know you have something to do when you get back to the motorhome. But as for the focus and keeping my eye on the prize, I don't think my personal life came into it at all."
McMurray made the Chase, finishing 13th in series points last season, but the 2010 winner of the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 hasn't been to Victory Lane since Talladega in 2013. His 76-race winless streak in points races in one race longer than Larson's.
"Our biggest improvement needs to be at mile-and-a-half tracks," McMurray said. "If you can be good at those, you can get by and get away with (your performance) at short tracks and road courses. In 2014, I thought mile-and-a-halves were our strongest tracks, so that's been our primary focus."
McMurray and Larson will race at Daytona prior to the majority of their Cup rivals – albeit on the road course. They'll team with Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, seeking to defend Ganassi's title in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Their car, the Ford No. 02 EcoBoost Prototype, is a very different kind of animal.
"I've driven a lot of race cars and that's the most different and difficult one," Larson said. " It takes three or four laps until you have (tire) grip. There are hand controls, knobs -- there's 30 switches over here (to my right) that you have to memorize. It's just a complicated race car, but pretty fun to drive once you have the hang of it."
McMurray says the 2 car could have its hands full trying to repeat its title, in part because of rules changes to balance power.
"They took some power away from the style engine we run and I think they gave some power to some different types of cars," said McMurray, who tested at Daytona two weeks ago. "Our speed was fairly close to what we ran last year, but some of the other cars seem quite a bit quicker."
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Two floors down from the red carpet that would serve as the staging area for Team Penske's 50th anniversary gala at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, defending Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano fielded questions from reporters.
There were two thrusts to the conversation: a promising 2015 season that ended badly and a 2016 campaign that holds great promise for Logano's No. 22 Team Penske Ford.
For practical purposes, Logano's run at a possible first championship came to a brutal end last year when Matt Kenseth pile-drove the No. 22 into the Turn 1 wall at Martinsville -- retaliation for an incident two weeks earlier at Kansas, where Logano turned Kenseth, the race leader, with five laps left and prevented the veteran Joe Gibbs Racing driver from advancing in the Chase.
Logano won six races and six poles in 2015, both series bests. In addition to the coveted Daytona 500, he won the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol for the second straight year.
Logano swept all three races in the Chase's Round of 12, at Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega, before Kenseth waylaid him at Martinsville.
A year earlier, Logano had advanced to the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway before a pit road mistake relegated him to a fourth-place finish in the final standings.
But even with the issues, the last two years have convinced the 25-year-old driver that he and his team should be perennial contenders, perhaps even one of the favorites for the title.
"Most wins, most poles, 22 top fives -- those are championship stats," Logano said on Wednesday during the Team Penske stop on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour.
"We don't have the trophy, but we know how to do it. We know how to do this now. It's not going to be a fluke when it happens."
Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski, already has a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship on his resume. Logano feels his team has the wherewithal to deliver a second series title to team owner Roger Penske.
"We don't need to change what we’re doing," Logano said. "(Crew chief) Todd (Gordon) and I talk about this a lot. What we're doing has been successful. We haven't reinvented the wheel since we started working together. We just kept making it a little better and refining it a little bit, smoothing out this area and smoothing out that area, and before you know it, you've got a pretty good wheel.
"So we're pretty close to being where we want to be. I'm proud of the progress we've made in the last three years and how we keep improving. I just want to make sure that keeps going, and it's going to be a challenge. To make the numbers better than they were last year is going to be very tough, but it's something I look forward to trying to do."
Team Penske's 50th anniversary party celebrates 28 series championships in various forms of motorsports.
When No. 51 rolls around next year, Logano may just have another to add to the stockpile. And if that happens, continuity will have a lot to do with it. At Team Penske, there is very little turnover of personnel.
"Paul Wolfe and Brad came up through the XFINITY series and also Todd and Joey, being able to bring those guys along is a huge difference," Penske said. "With that process, we have built teams around these great drivers and crew chiefs, and that is key going into 2016. Most of the people we have are home grown.
"We build our cars all the same. The only way you know which car it is when they put the decals on it. It's like a 7-iron -- everyone holds it a little differently. The setup they put on the car might be a little different, but at the end of the day it's the results, and we can look and see why someone is fast and see the differences.
"I take my hat off to Paul and Todd for what they have been able to do working together. You see the speed we had in 2015 and 2014, and I think we will carry on where we left off at the end of the season."
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was difficult to tell who was more excited Wednesday when the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour wheeled into the Ford Technical Center in Concord, N.C.
Take your pick: There were the legendary Wood Brothers, returning to full-time racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Ford Racing, unveiling its new version of the No. 21 Fusion, and driver Ryan Blaney, preparing to continue his family's racing tradition by running a full rookie season in the NSCS.
It's big news and well-received in NASCAR that the Wood Brothers are back racing a full, 36-race schedule for the first time since 2008. With 66 years of racing history, the team has won races in seven decades, fielding multiple winning cars for the likes of Marvin Panch, A.J. Foyt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Neil Bonnet.
"I'd like to think that we could be (back) in Victory Circle reasonably soon -- maybe the Daytona 500," said co-owner Len Wood, whose team won that race with rookie driver Trevor Bayne in 2011. "That's one of our favorite races. But I'm looking forward to going back to some of the tracks we haven't been to for a while, like Atlanta, Martinsville."
Co-owner Eddie Wood agrees that there's simply a different feel with the team prepared to be at the track every week, as it was in the days when Glen (now 90) and Leonard Wood (81) were in charge.
"You're just not supposed to be at home when everybody else is racing," he said.
Like the Woods, Blaney grew up in the racing business. He's the son of longtime driver Dave Blaney.
"My dad was my hero and (racing) is what I wanted to do," said Blaney, his stringbean 5-foot-7, 140-pound frame backed to the nose of a sparkling new, red and white Ford Fusion -- a version sporting a smaller windshield, retooled deck area and new fender flares among visible changes based on similarities to production cars.
"All I knew was the racetrack -- nothing else. I didn't care about any other sport or school as much. I was just a fan of racing and that was what I wanted to do at a young age. That's why I'm so lucky to be in this position. It's just sort of a dream come true. We're just lucky to go full-time racing with a great organization and great equipment."
Despite having 18 Sprint Cup starts under his belt (including a fourth at Talladega last year), Blaney is just 22. It won't hurt that he'll be surrounded by a world of experience, not only by the Wood Brothers but with crew chief Jeremy Bullins, who recently won 21 races and consecutive owner's championships in the Xfinity Series with Team Penske.
That experience, Blaney maintains, is breeding neither a generation gap nor pressure that might normally accompany a driver looking to secure a seat for the long haul.
"They (Wood Brothers) are the most laid-back group of people I've known and Jeremey Bullins is the same," Blaney said. "They're very accepting people. They're racers and all they care about is wanting to go race. They don't mind who is in the race car, if he or she is 18 or 50."
Bullins, recovering from right ankle surgery in December, is actually coming home. He began his career with Wood Brothers in 1999.
"It means a lot to me to get this thing with Wood Brothers back full time and it means a lot to me to try to have the opportunity to try to make it competitive," he said. "Growing up where I did, it was all (about) the 21 car."
Bullins said Blaney, despite his tender age, has the maturity to do the job. His 43 NASCAR Xfinity Series starts (four wins, 33 top 10s) and 58 races (four wins, 40 top 10s) in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series bear that out.
"I think the cool thing about growing up the way he did and who his dad is, he's not overwhelmed about being in the garage," Bullins said. "Because he's been here and seen it all and knows what the expectations are, he's 22 but doesn't act like it. He doesn't walk around like it."
Outsiders might be quick to judge Blaney's season by how he fares in the battle for Sunoco Rookie of the Year.
"Chase Elliott has a great team behind him, stepping in for Jeff Gordon. It's going to be a lot of fun to race with him and Chris Buescher and Brian Scott and Jeffrey Earnhardt all year," Blaney said.
But Bullins said he'll be judging things differently.
"I think you're judged every week by the 43 cars you go up against. It will be a good rookie class ... but our goal is not to beat one guy. It's to beat all of them. As long as we're improving every week, I'm satisfied."
Blaney says he'll be focused on steady improvement and gaining a measure of respect.
"That's what it's all about, whatever level you're in,” Blaney said. "You have to earn the respect of your competitors. I did that in the Truck series and Xfinity Series. My dad always told me you have to give respect to get it back and I've worked very hard to give as much respect as I could without just pulling out of the way of other people."
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Brian Scott knows he's in a pretty good place.
In 2016, the 28-year-old Idaho native will compete in a loaded field for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors with the logo of Richard Petty Motorsports emblazoned on his chest.
"It's pretty cool," said Scott, speaking Wednesday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "Richard Petty: Just when you say his name you think of so many things. You think 200 wins. You think seven championships. You think about the guy in the cowboy hat -- the 'King.'
"I've had the opportunity to drive for Joe Gibbs. I've had the opportunity to drive for Richard Childress, and now I have the opportunity to drive for Richard Petty. I don't think there's a lot of people who can say that. So, to be around him and Dale Inman (Hall of Fame crew chief) in the shop and to try to be a sponge and soak in everything they say -- at the same time being honored to carry the Richard Petty logo and name -- that is pretty special."
Although Scott is without a top-10 finish in 17 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts (his best showing was 12th at Kansas last season), Petty liked what he saw from him in the NASCAR Xfinity Series (20 career top fives).
"We feel like he's at the age that if he's ever going to do anything, now's the time to do it," Petty said. "He's got the experience on all the race tracks and he's got the burning desire."
Scott's new crew chief, Chris Heroy, has been impressed with his driver's maturity.
"He's at the shop every day and he's an impressive kid," said Heroy, quick to correct himself. "He's not a kid. He's a grown man. It's the way he carries himself, the way he leads the team and the way he wants to make this deal different in terms of how it's run, how we model ourselves and how we treat each other. I've (already) got a lot of respect for him."
Whether Scott can win a battle with the likes of Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher for 2016 Rookie of the Year honors remains to be seen. But he believes that a focus on consistency -- an ongoing theme in the Petty camp --will carry the day. If he can manage lead-lap finishes and attain competition director Sammy Johns' weekly goal of finishing in the top 15, then honors like Rookie of the Year, he is convinced, will take care of themselves.
Still, his eye is on the competition.
"It is a talented (rookie) group and it's very hard to handicap it before we've actually been on the race track," Scott said. "It will even be hard to handicap after Daytona.
"I think a lot of people probably feel that Chase Elliott is the favorite, going into the Hendrick organization and the 24 car -- such an established team with a record of success. But I like flying under the radar a little bit and I feel with what I've seen in the shop and what (our guys) are capable of, we can surprise."
Scott believes he will benefit from the expertise of Heroy, who helped Kyle Larson win Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 2014.
"I feel like he's an incredibly talented guy," Scott said. "He brings a lot of experience working with a young driver. He was with Kyle Larson in 2014 when they won Rookie of the Year, then continued that growth in 2015. So, he has that experience of working with a guy that's coming into the Sprint Cup Series that has a lot to figure out."
While teammate Aric Almirola returns to pilot the iconic No. 43 Ford with Smithfield Farms as the primary sponsor, Scott -- replacing Sam Hornish Jr. in the RPM lineup -- will help Petty resurrect the No. 44 as part of its brand. An immediate benefit for RPM are the sponsorships of Albertsons and Shore Lodge that Scott brings with him.
Almirola made the Chase in 2014 by virtue of a victory at Daytona in July. Although he was more consistent in 2015, he just missed a second Chase appearance, finishing 17th in points. He wishes he could have thrown out last-place finishes at Daytona and Loudon.
"Going into this year, I think it's still about consistency," Almirola said. "It's still about showing up at the track with fast cars and getting the most out of your day. If we have a top-15 car, we need to try to finish top 15 with it. If we have a top-five car, we need to finish top five. And if we have a car capable of winning, we need to try to win with it. That's our goal: to try to make the most out of every weekend."
Relying on its technical alliance with Ford and Roush Fenway Racing, RPM is also becoming more independent. Petty resumed hanging its own bodies last year and will build its own chassis this season.
"You don't have a whole lot of control when you go to a restaurant," Almirola said. "But if you make your food at home, you have a little more control. It's going to taste how you want it. You know what seasonings you like and you know the flavor you like. When you have control (of the ingredients), you have a better chance of controlling the outcome, and I feel like that's where we've gotten to.
"A few years ago, we relied on everybody else to make our race cars fast. If they weren't, there was nothing we could do about it. We could complain, but we didn't have the manpower or the resources to change it. Now, because of the people we have and the sponsors we've got, we have the ability to change it. It's the way Petty Enterprises used to be."
Johns thinks that control will make a difference.
"Being able to get every detail out of the chassis that we can -- making sure that we're getting what the crew chiefs want and building the lightest, strongest cars we can build. We felt like Aric and (crew chief) Trent (Owens) were able to get their cars handling and driving the way Aric wanted, week in, week out, but just our raw speed was not there. So, we have to provide a better tool to work with, and that's a faster race car that is going to be lighter with more downforce."
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
It's a job change for Jeff Gordon, but there are familiar aspects
From a teamwork standpoint, Jeff Gordon's new day job won't be that much different from his old one.
"It's such a team effort," said Gordon, who is transitioning this year from the seat of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to the FOX Sports broadcast booth. "(There are) so many comparisons to what I've done as a driver in the sport, as to what I’ve already seen in the broadcast booth, whether it was Xfinity races that I did last year, or working with these guys (play-by-play man Mike Joy and analyst Darrell Waltrip) when we did rehearsal at the Truck race in Texas.
"And then following that up in December and January with a lot of meetings, and talking about preparation and the technology that they're bringing to the broadcast and just how we're working together as a team, coming up with great ideas. It's going to be a lot of fun -- I can't wait to get to Daytona."
Gordon landed his new job after a phone call to Eric Shanks, president, COO and executive producer at Fox Sports. Though Gordon expressed interest in a broadcasting career, Shanks wanted to make sure the four-time champion was a good fit with the brand that Joy, Waltrip and Larry McReynolds established in the last 15 years.
"NASCAR on FOX didn't exist before Larry, Mike and Darrell," Shanks said on Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "They created what the NASCAR on FOX brand is. When Jeff said this was something he was interested in, you do take a step back and say, 'OK, can Jeff carry on the tradition and be a part of the group of what you guys have done?' which is fun and entertaining and self-deprecating.
"You look at the drivers that are coming out. How many other drivers have hosted SNL ("Saturday Night Live"), and have gone through makeup to be a taxi driver to freak somebody out in a Pepsi commercial? Getting to know Jeff really well and his brand and how it fits with what these guys have created -- I think it's going to be really special."
Those who see transformed Daytona International Speedway for the first time are likely to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the changes to the Birthplace of Speed, but Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of parent company International Speedway Corporation, thinks one of the most compelling differences may well be the scope and level of technology available to fans after the completion of the Daytona Rising project.
"I feel like one of the biggest 'wow' factors will be technology and how it'll be so much more interactive with the fans," Kennedy said. "I think that you're going to see ... we talked about our new mobile app, for instance, and it'll give fans the opportunity to go to reward stations and get prizes, all types of interactive events like that. I think they're going to enjoy it.
"We're also going to have new larger high-def video screens, so they're going to feel more up close and personal with the competition, the drivers and what's going on at the track. And the one thing I love at Daytona -- but across all the facilities -- is the WiFi capabilities. We've all been to a stadium where you can't get out and you can't communicate out, and we have so many cool things that are going on, I want our fans to be able to be telling everybody what's happening there during the event, and I think that's going to be really good for all of us."
Kennedy also emphasized ISC’s ongoing commitment to the safety of competitors and fans, noting that, throughout the company's portfolio, ISC has added 54,000 linear feet of new SAFER barrier to its facilities.
And now that the Daytona Rising project is reaching fruition, Kennedy said Richmond and Phoenix are two of the next company priorities for capital improvements.
What's in a name
With elimination-style playoffs in all of its top three national touring series this year, NASCAR has done the sensible thing, dropping the nomenclature from the four rounds of the Chase for the Sprint Cup in favor of more traditional Round of 16, etc.
"Yes, we have removed the round names from the #Chase, including #NASCAR Sprint Cup," tweeted David Higdon, vice president of NASCAR integrated marketing communications. "Now: Round of 16, Round of 12, Round of 8, Championship Round."
Drivers, teams hoping for long-term deals
Although in his final year of his contract at Joe Gibbs Racing, Denny Hamlin indicated he doesn't anticipate jumping teams any time soon -- if ever.
"I think Mike (Wheeler) will be my last crew chief," Hamlin said of his new pit partnership. "I've got such a great relationship with JGR and (sponsor) FedEx, I'd be a fool to leave either one."
In a similar vein, Furniture Row Racing general manager Joe Garone said his team is happy with its relationship with driver Martin Truex Jr. and would sign him to a multiyear contract if it had assurances that sponsorship dollars were in place.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Let's cut to the Chase.
Starting this year, the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series will use elimination-based playoff formats to determine their respective champions, just as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has done for the past two seasons.
According to NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France, the new approach not only builds on the resounding success of the Chase for the Sprint Cup but provides a training ground for drivers who ultimately will compete at NASCAR's highest level.
"The idea is pretty simple," France said. "When we looked at how successful the format is with the Sprint Cup Series, and the fact that drivers trying to win a championship in those lower divisions are trying to come up to the Sprint Cup, we know the way to win in the future ... you've got to beat people, you've got to be winning, you've got to be in the crosshairs of elimination at any given moment.
"And that's how we want our young drivers, at a very early stage, to understand the latest in the competitive style of NASCAR. So no better way to do that than to have our championship formats consistent, and that's one of the main reasons we did that."
The Chase formats in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series will feature seven races each and two elimination rounds before the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But beyond that, they diverge in format.
The Xfinity Series Chase starts with 12 drivers, four of whom are eliminated after each three-race round, leaving four drivers to race for the title at Homestead. As with the Sprint Cup Series, the highest finisher among those four drivers in the season finale is the champion.
In the Truck Series, eight drivers will qualify for the Chase, with two drivers eliminated after each three-race round, again leaving four competitors to run for the championship at Homestead.
In detailing the fine points of the two new formats, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said the new format in the two lower national touring series would go a long way toward eliminating "points racing," particularly in the championship race.
O'Donnell pointed out that Erik Jones won last year's Truck Series title by taking care of his equipment and finishing sixth in the finale, given that he had a large enough lead to play it safe at Homestead. By definition, that will change under the new playoff format.
"The culture we want in our sport is to go out there and win the race, and I think everybody here in this room knows Erik Jones is capable of that," O'Donnell said. "And we're looking forward to seeing that type of racing when we get to Homestead in 2016, as well."
Chase formats aren't the only innovations
O'Donnell also revealed that NASCAR will implement a "caution clock" in the Camping World Truck Series. If 20 minutes of green-flag racing pass without a caution, the yellow will fly as a competition caution.
"We think it's going to add to the strategy during the race, and if you look at the Camping World Truck Series, that's an area where some of our younger drivers, younger teams, newer teams really can use the competition caution to be able to adjust on the truck," O'Donnell said.
"We've seen that in the (Sprint) Cup Series when we've had a competition caution early in the race. It's allowed the teams to make some last-minute adjustments early in the race. We think that's going to be huge for the teams, as well, and the trucks throughout the race and will be implemented throughout the season as we head into 2016."
O'Donnell also announced a change to the format of the popular Dash 4 Cash bonus program in the Xfinity Series. After knockout qualifying, drivers will compete in two heat races (similar in concept to the Daytona Duel races in the Sprint Cup Series) to set the order for the main event.
The two highest-finishing series regulars from each heat are eligible for the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus in the main event, with the award going to the highest finisher of the four drivers. The four designated Dash 4 Cash races are the spring events at Bristol, Richmond and Dover, with the series ending at Indianapolis in July.
Drivers who win two or more of the four Dash 4 Cash bonuses will be all but assured of qualifying for the Xfinity Series Chase.
NASCAR is rolling out a new competition package in its foremost division, one that features lower downforce. The aim is to make the Sprint Cup cars more difficult to drive, which in turn will put more control in the hands of the drivers.
Dramatic changes on the track include Chase Elliott, a 20-year-old rookie, succeeding icon Jeff Gordon behind the wheel of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, as Gordon moves to the Fox Sports broadcast booth.
The No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford are scheduled to be at every race track on the Sprint Cup schedule for the first time in forever, with Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Blaney driving the legendary red-and-white Fusion.
There is a new manufacturer's label on the No. 78 Furniture Row car, as the team moves to Toyota and an affiliation with Joe Gibbs Racing from Richard Childress Racing and a long-time association with Chevrolet.
But maybe the most intriguing changes in 2016 won't be on the track. They'll be visible on top of the various Sprint Cup pit boxes. And you'll need a chart to keep them straight.
As the sport kicks off the season with the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour, which starts on Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, here's a quick rundown of the host of crew chief moves for 2016.
Two of the most visible changes come at Stewart-Haas Racing, where rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz takes over Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet from departed Chad Johnston, and Billy Scott replaces Daniel Knost on Danica Patrick's No. 10, as Patrick starts her fourth full season in Sprint Cup racing with her third crew chief.
For Bugarewicz, the move is a significant step up from his role as race engineer for Kevin Harvick.
Though he toiled in relative anonymity during Harvick's 2014 championship season, Bugarewicz won't be able to escape the spotlight as he sets up the car and makes the calls during Stewart's farewell to Sprint Cup racing.
Similarly, Scott will draw considerable attention as the pit boss on Patrick's car, as Sprint Cup's only current female driver tries to crack the top 20 in the series standings. Scott is the third alumnus of now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing to take a crew chief's job at Stewart-Haas (Johnston and Rodney Childers, Harvick's crew chief, are the others).
Childers is the linchpin of SHR's crew chief corps, and his past association with Scott at MWR should ease the latter's transition to Patrick's high-profile ride.
"Obviously I know Rodney's mentality, as we worked closely together for a couple of years on the No. 55 in particular," Scott says. "Just seeing the success he's had and knowing what his approach is to things and his philosophies and understanding that it's been proven here – it will work.
"We have a lot of similar approaches to the car setup and the teams and stuff, and it proves that there's a good foundation here, and that's something to build off of."
Stewart, a two-time winner of the event who is not racing this weekend, went into the stands and put his hands on the fan's shoulders, which led the crowd to begin chanting "Tony."
The Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals is a national event that attracts more than 300 racers of midget cars to the River Spirit Expo Center.
The confrontation happened in the general admission pit area grandstand on the backstretch.
Stewart and the heckler exchanged words and the fan appeared to push Stewart, who continued to yell at the fan for a few more seconds after another man moved the fan back into his seat.
Another angle of the encounter shows the fan telling Stewart, "I don't like you, and I never have."
The Tulsa County Sheriff's Office is investigating the conduct of the fan, identified in the video as off-duty sheriff's officer Kyle Hess.
Stewart is the 2002 and 2007 winner of the event and attended to help prepare the dirt surface. Stewart said earlier this week he might compete in the event again next year after he retires from Sprint Cup racing at the end of this season.
Stewart, who won NASCAR's Sprint Cup in 2002, 2005 and 2011, is known for his talent and his temper.
Stewart missed three races in 2014 after the sprint car he was driving hit and killed Kevin Ward Jr.
Ward was killed on Aug. 9, 2014 in an Empire Super Sprints race at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park when, after crashing, he approached the other cars on foot as they were riding around under caution. Stewart's car struck Ward, who was pronounced dead at a hospital 45 minutes later.
Ward's parents, Kevin and Pamela Ward, have filed a lawsuit against Stewart and seek unspecified damages for their son's pain and suffering as well as economic benefits and support he could have provided them.
Ward's family alleges that Stewart lost his temper to cause the tragedy and that, in the process of trying to intimidate their son, Stewart swerved toward him and ended up accidentally striking Ward.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Some label Terry Labonte the NASCAR premier series' least flamboyant champion.
Perhaps it just seemed that way, when measuring Labonte alongside such colorful contemporaries as NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip.
His calm, quiet demeanor at least partially explains why Labonte became known as "The Iceman."
The Corpus Christi, Texas, driver may not have personified flash, but Labonte got the job done.
Labonte won his first of two championships in 1984 and figuratively fell off the radar for a dozen years before resurfacing to claim a second title driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
His 22 premier series victories don't accurately measure the breadth of Labonte's career. Consistency is a much better measure: 17 different seasons among the top 10 in the championship standings along with 361 top-10 finishes, the latter ranking 10th all-time. Labonte also won in the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series, as well as the International Race of Champions (IROC) and shared the GTO class-winning entry in the 1984 24 Hours of Daytona.
Rick Hendrick believed Labonte's attitude -- which often put others first -- may have kept him from winning more frequently.
"Terry could've accomplished even more in his career had he been a little more selfish," Hendrick told the Associated Press in 2006. "But there's not a selfish bone in his body. He's a great talent, but he's just a great human being.
"He'll always do what's best for the team, even if it puts him in an awkward spot."
Labonte will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., on Jan. 22, along with the other four members of the Class of 2016 -- Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac, O. Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner. Ceremonies will be broadcast live on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET.
Born Nov. 16, 1956 and raised in south Texas, Terrance Lee Labonte was introduced to racing by his father, who worked on race cars for friends. He was a quarter-midget champion by age nine and won stock car titles in Corpus Christi, Houston and San Antonio from 1975 to 1977.
Labonte met Louisiana oilman and sports car racer Billy Hagan, who fielded the NASCAR premier series team that carried Skip Manning to the rookie of the year title in 1976. Labonte joined the Stratagraph Racing team for the final five races of 1978 and became Hagan's permanent driver the following season in which he finished 10th but lost rookie of the year honors to Earnhardt.
Labonte notched his first premier series victory in the 1980 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. With sponsorship from Piedmont Airlines, Labonte, Hagan and NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman captured the 1984 championship with victories at Bristol Motor Speedway and the Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway road course.
Success, however, was fleeting.
"We weren't supposed to win it and we didn't know what to do with it," said Inman, who left the team to rejoin Richard Petty.
Labonte agreed, reminiscing after his second title, "I thought it was a pretty neat deal and we'd win it the next year. Next year took a long time coming."
Labonte departed the Hagan outfit for Junior Johnson's Budweiser team, then went to Precision Performance followed by a second stint with Stratagraph. He joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1994.
"I looked at his statistics early in his career and I couldn't believe how well he'd run with the equipment he was in," Hendrick later told the Associated Press.
Labonte responded by winning the 1996 championship, edging Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon by 37 points. His younger brother, Bobby, won the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the two celebrated together. Bobby Labonte became a NASCAR premier series champion himself in 2000, making the pair the first brothers to win a title in the top division.
Terry Labonte continued fulltime with the Hendrick team through the 2004 season, winning for the final time at Darlington in 2003. He continued to race on a part-time basis, calling it an 890-race career at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 19, 2014.
Labonte has said his two favorite victories were those in his home state -- at Texas Motor Speedway. But he may be better-remembered for a pair of slam-bang races at Bristol battling the late Earnhardt. In 1995, Labonte won a final-lap duel despite a shove by Earnhardt that sent his car into the wall. Fast-forward to 1999, when Earnhardt spun and wrecked Labonte on the final lap and famously said in Victory Lane, he was "just trying to rattle his cage."
The driver -- and his fans -- were livid, but Labonte admitted 15 years later in a Popular Speed Magazine interview that he was at least partially to blame for the ruckus.
"If I had gotten into the corner at a better angle then he wouldn't have got the chance to hit me. But I was passing him low and couldn't carry the speed into the corner and he took advantage of it," Labonte said. "I don't think he really intended to wreck me. He wanted to move me out of the way. That was his only shot. I had four new tires and he didn't.
"It was just one of those deals."
Labonte is a member of the National Quarter Midget Hall of Fame and in 1998 was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Ruben Garcia Jr. couldn't have asked for a better role model.
As he embarks on the next major step in his NASCAR racing career, a move up to the K&N Pro Series East with Rev Racing, Garcia can look for inspiration to a fellow Mexican driver -- Daniel Suarez -- whose early career arc mirrors his own.
"He's an example that, if you do the things you need to do in the right moment, with the right people, you can keep going and keep looking for your dream," said Garcia, one of six members of the 2016 NASCAR Drive for Diversity driver class announced on Friday.
"He's doing such an amazing job in the Xfinity and (Camping World) Truck Series. I'm sure it's going to be even better for him. That's motivation for me and the other young drivers who want to climb the (NASCAR) tree."
Suarez posted 28 top 10s in the two series combined, and Garcia, at 20 the youngest-ever NASCAR Mexico Series champion, would like nothing better than to follow Suarez's example.
His father, Ruben Garcia Sr., also is a gifted racer. The elder Garcia finished second in the NASCAR Mexico Series' final standings in 2006, the last year before NASCAR began its sanction. So it is no surprise that Garcia Jr. was attuned to racing from his earliest days.
"Since I remember, when I was really young -- not just as a driver but as a fan -- I always enjoyed watching races on the TV, especially NASCAR," Garcia said. "I enjoy watching almost all types of races, but NASCAR was the one that was of the most interest to me.
"I started racing go-karts, and then I started racing small touring cars, which I enjoyed even more than racing go-karts."
At age 14, Garcia raced a stock car on an oval for the first time and was hooked.
"I had such a great time that I decided I was going to work and look for bigger goals in the NASCAR series," he said.
Rev Racing, which supports the efforts of the diversity drivers, will field four entries in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. Collin Cabre, winner of last year's season finale at Dover International Speedway, will be back for another year in K&N.
Cabre, however, gets plenty of competition from his teammates. Jairo Avila, a 20-year-old Colombian-American from Alhambra, California, posted four top 10s in five K&N Pro Series West starts for his family-owned team last season.
Ali Kern, 22, from Fremont, Ohio, is the latest female driver to join D4D and brings impressive credentials, having won 2013 rookie of the year while finishing second in the final standings in the ARCA/CRA Super Series.
The 2016 D4D class also includes Enrique Baca, 24, from Monterrey, Mexico and Juan Garcia, 18, originally from Bogota, Colombia, both of whom had strong D4D Combine performances and will compete in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. Garcia made a strong impression in the series last year, earning the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award.
For all six drivers, selection to the D4D program represents a major career opportunity.
"To me, it's such an honor to represent Rev Racing and to race for NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program," Garcia said. "It's the biggest opportunity I have in my life right now to go and search for my goals and one day climb to the highest level in one of the NASCAR Series."
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Jerry Cook never intended to support his family driving a modified stock car. It kind of sneaked up on the young resident of Rome, N.Y.
Cook, who built his first modified at the age of 13, took the wheel by happenstance, when his hired driver wrecked two of the race cars he owned. That was in 1963, well before Cook won his first of six NASCAR modified championships.
But Cook soon discovered he had a knack for winning races -- and finishing well enough to cash a decent check when he didn't.
"Every time I reached into my pocket, it had money in it," Cook would say later. "So I kept racing."
And indeed Cook did -- all the way into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, into which he will be inducted Jan. 22 as part of the Class of 2016 that also includes Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte, O. Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner. Induction ceremonies will be live on NBCSN, Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio beginning at 8 p.m. ET.
Cook won modified championships in 1971-72 and 1974-77. Before retiring at the conclusion of the 1982 season, Cook also posted six championship points finishes of second and two of third. He won 342 NASCAR modified races in 1,474 career starts -- and countless other non-sanctioned events. Cook finished among the top 10 an amazing 85 percent of the time.
Cook joins fellow Roman and career-long modified racing rival Richie Evans in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The late Evans, a nine-time NASCAR modified champion, was inducted in 2012 as the first Hall member whose career wasn't connected to NASCAR's premier series. Cook is the second.
"We've now finished off the battle of Rome," Cook said. "For me and Ritchie to both be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it kind of tops it off."
Cook and Evans made upstate New York the epicenter of NASCAR modified racing in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Each driver had his legion of fans -- vociferous on behalf of the merits of their favorite charioteer.
Cook and Evans were respectful of each other and friends off the track, yet as different as night and day.
Evans was the flamboyant one, famous for living life to its fullest with rock and roll music as the race shop's background noise. A writer calling Cook's home, however, would find the telephone answered by the driver's wife, Sue, who would refer him to the backyard garage where preparing or repairing Cook's red cars was quietly taking place.
Ray Evernham, a former modified driver, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship crew chief and television analyst had this to say about Cook: "Jerry was not a guy who raced on the edge. Jerry won his share no doubt. But if he didn't win, he was still going to be in the top five."
In some years, Cook's team would run nearly 100 races, at up to 19 tracks of all sizes, shapes and surfaces from New England to Virginia.
Some of Cook's signature wins took place outside New York and New England. Cook's first major victory was the 1969 Dogwood 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. He won a trio of 200-lap races at the tough, Bowman-Gray (N.C.) Stadium quarter mile between 1977 and 1980.
The closest Cook came to the NASCAR premier series was a Daytona 500 qualifying race in 1973. His car's engine blew seven laps from the end. Cook, with a wife and two children, took a look at what non-factory-supported drivers were winning and decided to stay in the modifieds.
"So that's why I stuck with what I did best," he said.
Cook retired after winning the Spencer (N.Y.) Speedway championship in 1982. For more than 30 years, he was a key member of NASCAR's competition department and was instrumental in the formation of the current NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
Cook, 72, was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers in 1998. He is a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame and New York Stock Car Hall of Fame.
Busch is expected to be fully recovered before the start of the 2016 Sprint Cup season in February.
Busch suffered a broken right leg and broken left foot in a crash at Daytona Speedway on Feb. 21. He missed the first 11 races of the season but was able to land a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and won the season finale to claim the title.
The driver recently stated that doctors recommended this surgery due to the possibility of another accident. It would be harder for doctors to repair a possible broken leg if the rod was still inside.