Wednesday Media Tour Pit Notes
The final stop on Tuesday's portion of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway was at Joe Gibbs Racing in Huntersville, N.C., where the media met with team officials and NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
Following dinner, team owner Joe Gibbs and JGR President J.D. Gibbs talked and joked about a variety of subjects including the recent retirement of the elder Gibbs after his second stint as head coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins.
"We've got dad back here at the race shop this year, but we still haven't figured out how much of a pay-cut he's going to have to take," J.D. Gibbs said with a laugh. "We know it's going to be a big pay-cut for him and he's going to have to get used to dropping a couple of zeroes off of what he expects to make now that he's back in racing full-time."
Joe Gibbs simply laughed and shrugged off the comical spin that his son put on his return to the family racing operation team.
"I just want to say that if something goes wrong this year in Washington then it wasn't my fault," the elder Gibbs said with a smile. "It will be my fault if something goes wrong here with my race team. In all honesty, it was a thrill to be able to go back to Washington to coach the Redskins again, but now I'm glad to be back at home in racing. I'm just looking forward to getting back to racing and getting the season started."
J.D. Gibbs said he was pleased with the progress of his three Sprint Cup teams during the off-season and expects the hard work to pay early dividends.
"I'm excited about the move to Toyota and I really feel like we're going to be in good shape," J.D. Gibbs said. "We've found out that with Toyota it's very much a team thing where we try and help out other Toyota teams as well as them being able to help us. Plus we're celebrating the 10-year anniversary this year of Tony and Greg Zipadelli working together and that's a long time. We are also celebrating our 10th year with Home Depot as the main sponsor on the No. 20 car. Of course, we still have Denny Hamlin on board as far as our Cup program goes as well as our newest driver, Kyle Busch. We're all excited and really looking forward to getting the season started."
Following brief on-stage comments from the Joe Gibbs Racing executives, the team's three Sprint Cup drivers shared their thoughts about the new season.
Stewart talked about a variety of subjects ranging from preseason testing at Daytona to his thoughts on the off-season manufacturer change from Chevrolet to Toyota.
"We had a good test at Daytona, but one of the things I'm really looking forward to is getting to test at like four of the first 10 tracks to start the year off," said Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. "Once we get through those tests is when we will really have a pretty good gauge on where we are with this new car. The difference between the new car and the old one really isn't that much different to me. A race car is a race car. I'm still sitting in the same seat I sat in last year, so it hasn't been all that big a deal to me to be honest.
"I can't wait to get back to Daytona and try and win that race," Stewart added. "It's going to be a big deal because it's the 50th annual Daytona 500, but to me I just want to win that race and I really don't care which number it is. It would mean the same to me as it would to have won the 49th Daytona 500 last year.
"It was nice to get away over the winter, but it's not as great as a lot of people make it out to be. Yeah, we're not at the race track as much, but we stay pretty busy doing things like commercials. I was talking to Denny before we walked out to talk to you guys and he was telling me he's getting ready to head out to California to shoot some kind of commercial. I'd just like to get away from everything for a couple of weeks and not do a thing, but that's not all that easy to do," Stewart concluded.
Hamlin is entering his third season of Sprint Cup Series competition, but admits the goals his team has set are lofty ones.
"It all starts with trying to win that very first race and just trying to take it from there," said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Fed-Ex Toyota. "The first goal is to win a race and Daytona is the first race, so it would mean a lot to be the first team and driver to win the first race for Toyota. That's what we're shooting for as well as just getting our consistency together with this new car. The tests have been good, but we've only tested at Daytona so I'm looking forward to getting down there and getting things kicked off in February. As far as what I think about the change from Chevrolet to Toyota, it really hasn't been all that big a deal to me for much as it has been a lot of hard work over the off-season to all the guys here at the shop. Those are the guys that have been putting in a lot of hours getting all these new cars ready and up to speed."
Kyle Busch is the newest addition to the Joe Gibbs Racing stable after a successful stint at Hendrick Motorsports.
"I've been pretty busy in the off-season," said Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&Ms/Interstate Batteries Toyota. "It's been crazy and probably one of the busiest off seasons I've ever had. I'll be glad to put that behind me and just worry about racing again once the season gets started. I really think we're going to come out of the box strong. To me, it's all about winning races and from what I've seen with this team so far is that's what they want to do as well. As long as I have the chance to win races and battle for the championship I'll be happy because to me that's what it's all about."
Media members then returned to the Embassy Suites Hotel and Concord Convention Center where the evening concluded with a hospitality function hosted by ESPN.
The third day of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour started at the Embassy Suites Hotel and Concord Convention Center with a breakfast hosted by Hall of Fame Racing. Among those participating were driver J.J. Yeley and owners Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkel.
"In terms of the upcoming season, I use the term cautiously optimistic," said Moorad. "When I say that, I know it's important from the beginning that we recognize we're new owners in the sport and need to pay our dues. At the same time, we're pleased with our relationship with Toyota and with having J.J. Yeley onboard."
Yeley said he agrees with Moorad in that the team must take things slowly and build its foundation rather than setting its expectations too high.
"Obviously, it's a matter of trying to get the communication between me and the team down pat," said Yeley, driver of the No. 96 DLP/HD TV Toyota. "While a team may have a great driver and a great crew chief, it's important to communicate. As a single-car team it just means I have to be more involved with getting the car right, which is great. That's what I love to do."
Media members then loaded into the America Charters buses and headed north to the new home of Petty Enterprises in Mooresville, N.C. The legendary team recently completed its move from Level Cross, N.C., to the shop that formerly housed Robert Yates Racing.
During its many years in the Level Cross facility, Petty Enterprises scored 273 NASCAR victories and claimed eight championships.
"I guess a lot of you in the media went to Level Cross last year on the Media Tour when the cat was kind of let out of the bag about us wanting to move to another shop," said team patriarch Richard Petty. "It was a hard decision and we looked at a lot of different sites to move the team before we found this one. Robert Yates moving out of this building really moved things up about a year for us. It was a gamble and it was hard, but it was something we all knew we needed to do. This is the first step for us getting this team back to where we need to be and getting competitive."
Kyle Petty said one of the hardest parts for him in making the transition from Level Cross to Mooresville was leaving behind so many childhood memories.
"I don't know what's going to happen to the old shop," said Petty, who drives the No. 45 Wells Fargo/Marathon Dodge. "It's been hard on me, but I knew it was time to make a change. While it was hard on me, I can't imagine how hard it was on my father because of all the history that our family made out of the old shop. When I was little I grew up there doing stuff like riding motorcycles and playing around the shop. I have to admit that I had no idea how hard would be to walk in and see Petty Enterprises with no race cars in it. Our heart and soul is still in Level Cross, but now that's behind us so hopefully one day we'll have the same feeling about this new place as we did with the old shop."
For Wednesday's third function, the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour headed down North Carolina Highway 3 to Dale Earnhardt Inc.
"We are all about winning and continuing the legacy that our founder started many years ago," said Max Siegel, president of global operations for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. "We've taken some pretty big steps to improve our team over the winter like merging our engine department with Richard Childress Racing."
Veteran Mark Martin enters the 2008 season with plans of running a limited schedule in the No. 8 U.S. Army Chevrolet.
"I admire Teresa Earnhardt a great deal for the direction she's taken DEI and the staff of employees she has in place," Martin said. "It's really an honor and a privilege for me to drive for this team. I used to race against Dale Sr. when he was driving the No. 8 car and I can tell you right now that he taught me a lot of things out there on the track. He showed me how to get things done. I can't wait to get the 2008 season started. The way things work here at DEI really isn't a whole lot different than what it was like with any of the other teams I've driven for in the past. Every team tries to build as good a car as they possibly can or I wouldn't have been with them."
After scoring his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in 2007 and making the chase for the championship, Martin Truex Jr. has high hopes for the new season.
"I think, as a team, we're just going to keep challenging ourselves," said Truex, driver of the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet. "Hopefully, we'll be able to pick up and be as strong this season as we finished off last year. I have a lot of confidence and I can't wait to get to Daytona and get that momentum started. If we can get in the chase, I really feel like we can win the championship. All the crew at the shop has been working hard to give me some of the best cars I've ever driven before."
The next stop for the touring media group was at Hendrick Motorsports where media members gathered in the spacious new Hendrick Motorsports Team Center. Team owner Rick Hendrick and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears were among those who addressed the Fourth Estate.
"It's hard to believe we started this team with 5,000 square-feet of space and five people working in that little building," Hendrick said. "A lot has happened in a hurry over the last 16 years. Our first concern for this year is to accelerate into 2008. Right now we're tied for dead last in the point standings as far as I'm concerned, so we need to come out and win races if we want to contend for another championship this season. What happened last year, happened last year and we all know that's not going to help us this year. While we had Jimmie and Jeff battling for the championship last year and were focused on that, a lot of the other teams were busy building their new cars for the 2008 season. It's going to be a lot of pressure, but we're going to work hard to stay on top of our game."
Gordon also understands everyone will be focused on dethroning Hendrick Motorsports from its perch as the sport's top team.
"This organization has set standards that you just have to try and rise above and make improvements," said Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. "We have the ability to have at least as much success as we had last year, so I'm excited about everything heading into the new season. I don't think it's that much of a secret that Jimmie, Casey Mears and myself are very good friends off the track and I think that helps our line of communication. When you bring a guy like Dale Jr. into the mix, it adds a lot of pressure as well as expectations. So far, I've been extremely impressed and he's really starting to make us look bad. We had a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated a little while back and Jimmie, Casey and I rolled into it, and Dale Jr. was already there. We were testing at Daytona and Dale Jr. wasn't supposed to be there. I got to looking around and he was there just standing around and watching us, trying to learn how we work together. So far, I've been extremely impressed with him."
Earnhardt Jr. admits he's taken a bit more of a hands-on approach as he hopes to thrive during his first year at Hendrick Motorsports.
"It's been overwhelming with everything that's happened for us to get to this point," said Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 AMP/National Guard Chevrolet. "There really aren't enough hours in the day for me to really explain how much I've learned and seen the last few weeks. I'm so excited about this year that I'm nervous, which makes me feel like I did when I was a rookie coming into the sport. As far as going to Daytona for the test, I just wanted to watch and learn from my teammates because they obviously know what they're doing. I knew they'd appreciate me being there. I wanted to see what it was like at the track under the Hendrick Motorsports banner so it wouldn't be like the first time when we get back down there for the Daytona 500. I can't wait to get the season started because I've got a renewed sense of energy and excitement."
Mears, who scored his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory last May in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, is entering his second year at Hendrick Motorsports.
"To win our first race last year was huge for all of us on my team," said Mears, driver of the No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet. "It's taken some time to get to know all the guys on this team and how they operate. I think my team is more prepared than ever. I'm going back to a program that really has built a lot of success and continuity. The communication is good between all the drivers here and that's even got a little bit stronger now that Dale Jr. has come on board with us. I'm excited and I think all of us at Hendrick Motorsports have a lot to look forward to this year."
For Johnson, his goal is rather simple as he aims for his third straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
"What we did the last couple of years was nice, but we simply can't dwell on the past," said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet. "As a team we've always seemed to be pretty strong to start the season and end it, but we've struggled through the middle part of the season as well as at certain race tracks. We're going to focus on changing that this year. Since we have won the last two titles, we know that we've got the bulls-eye on our back and that's really a pretty good thing when you have the team that other people are trying to copy. That's flattering.
"We want to do well and win races as well as championships," Johnson continued. "It's a new year and we are starting with a clean sheet of paper. I know in the past that I've watched guys like Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth win the championship and I tried to do all the same things that they were doing because they were the champions of our sport."
NEWS AND QUOTES FROM WEDNESDAY NIGHT'S FUNCTIONS
WILL BE INCLUDED IN THURSDAY'S NOTES