CHARLOTTE — Generational driver schism EXPOSED!
Top-secret EFI data REVEALED!
NASCAR chairman’s absence CALLED OUT!
If screaming headlines are your thing, NASCAR’s 2018 Media Tour delivered the goods with all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the forehead.
The annual preseason event provided its share of conversation starters (even if some topics seemed played out, or at least very familiar). The rift between the emerging class of budding stars and the establishment was notable, and a more widespread dissemination of acceleration, braking and turning information could have an impact on competition this season.
If you prefer nuance, however, you might have been left wanting for deeper analysis after this annual paean to pack journalism (in which the subject matter is limited to what is disclosed by a limited group of subjects – in this case, exclusively drivers with often limited agendas). And beyond the sexiest of storylines, there were other clues as to what might bear watching this season.
Here are five things you might have missed from last week’s Media Tour, particularly if you were following the updates in 280-character dispatches:
1. For Ford teams, it’s in Hawkeye we trust: It’s rare to find consensus among such a bull-headed constituency as race car drivers. But when asked how they will keep up with the newer Camry and Camaro, virtually every man behind the wheel of a Fusion cited NASCAR’s new inspection process as the saving grace. The system being implemented in 2018 will rely on cameras and computer scanning technology for more scrutiny.
Publicly, this was hailed as a win by Ford drivers who spoke mostly in generalities about the why. Privately, many were saying the new system will neutralize body advantages gained by the more recent models of Chevrolet and Toyota. Theoretically, it will eliminate precious wiggle room under the previous laser inspection and template processes.
As NASCAR has adjusted its rules to strip downforce in recent seasons, Ford’s older model seemed to lack the adjustability needed to regain rear downforce. This partly accounts for why Brad Keselowski has been lobbying for help since last season, warning ominously after the 2017 season finale that Ford could be headed for “a drubbing.”
The Hawkeye system seems to have ameliorated some of those concerns. It probably will be at least two months until its impact can be fully evaluated. But based on their confidence at the Media Tour, the Blue Oval brigade clearly has bought into the idea that the inspection changes will offer a fighting chance – at least until Ford rolls out a redesigned body (likely the Mustang) next season.
2. Teams have made big offseason changes … : After essentially operating as two two-car teams (competing out of adjacent buildings) for more than a decade, Hendrick Motorsports’ reorganization into a more universal approach is indicative of the teams’ struggles last season but also of the engineering-driven assembly line mentality that has taken root in Cup.
Traditionally, crew chiefs have stood as the king of the mountain at Hendrick, but its latest organization chart suggests that decision-making will become more diffuse. That could be an adjustment (and perhaps a welcome one) for Chad Knaus, who has enjoyed unprecedented success while leading Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet for the past 16 seasons. After arguably the most underperforming season of Johnson’s career, it seems an acknowledgment that the teams’ cars and setups would benefit from more input and “a think-tanking of ideas,” as Johnson alluded (while also hinting that shrinking sponsorship also makes standardization an easier choice over customization).
On a lesser scale, internal moves by smaller teams such as JTG Daugherty Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports seem aimed at enhancing the efficiency and leverage afforded by forming alliances with large teams. The blueprint is last year’s championship campaign of Furniture Row Racing, which outran Toyota ally and chassis supplier Joe Gibbs Racing with a much smaller budget and staff.
3. … and so have some drivers: After living much of the past two seasons in Aspen, Colorado, Johnson indicated he will be spending more time in Charlotte this year, aiding his team’s transition to a new structure with younger drivers. Roush Fenway Racing’s Trevor Bayne is headed in the other direction, relocating to his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee (though he will make frequent trips to the shop).
Kasey Kahne outlined his plans for running a couple dozen sprint car races with his teams now that his contractual shackles have been loosened. While the moonlighting surely will keep him loose, it was telling that Kahne recalled his 2011 with Red Bull Racing was “awesome” and more enjoyable than any of his six seasons at Hendrick.
Though he did score a win at Phoenix (in Red Bull’s penultimate race in NASCAR) and a respectable 14th in points (better than his final four years at Hendrick), it wasn’t the results that made him happy at Red Bull – it was the less constrained atmosphere of a smaller team. Kahne probably won’t have the same caliber of cars at Leavine Family Racing, but he will have less pressure, and that might make a difference.
4. Kyle Busch’s drive: The runner-up in last year’s championship race hasn’t rewatched the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale, and he probably won’t have another screening until November when Kyle Busch hopes to be advance to the championship round for the fourth consecutive season.
While he concedes that Martin Truex Jr. was deserving of the title because of his season-long excellence, Busch and his team believed they were as good or better than the No. 78 at Miami. That compounded the sting from Busch feeling as if he should have repeated as champion in 2016. “It’s tough when you feel like you should have won it three years in a row,” Busch said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “You’re obviously feeling like a failure and a letdown and not just for yourself but your team and organization and everyone around you.”
Busch had five wins last year but easily could have had twice as many, and those misses linger with him as much as the triumphs. His cutthroat determination makes him a star as much as his singular ability, and his edge already is evident this year. With the growing pains that slowed the Camry at the start of 2017 long gone, Busch seems primed to open 2018 the way he did a decade ago (when he won eight of the first 22 races in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing) and don’t forget that the Daytona 500 remains a glaring omission on his resume.
5. Kyle Larson (literally): The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was missing from the Media Tour because of an illness. But Larson was present at a sponsor announcement the previous week and provided some interesting reflections on last year’s finale and this season’s outlook.
He also reaffirmed his desire to have more Cup drivers run in grassroots series such as the Chili Bowl, laughing at Keselowski’s suggestion of being too tall to succeed (“He would barely be above average height in a Midget”). But he also empathized with those who worry about the reputation risks of parachuting into the Chili Bowl.
“I’ve thought about running a big dirt late model race, but I can’t even get the courage to go do it because I don’t want to embarrass myself not having practiced or raced it before,” Larson said. “So it would be really tough for a NASCAR guy to have high expectations or anything like that. I’m sure a lot of fans would have expectations of some sort for them, so it would be tough, but I’d love to see everyone give it a try because it’s a huge event and they’re amazing cars to drive. I think they would all be amazed at the power they have compared to what they’re used to, so it would be cool for sure to see them run.”