NASCAR Media Tour: Plenty More To Tell

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NASCAR Preseason 2011: We Made A Video

Look, there's a reason I'm a writer and not a camera guy – being a videographer is way harder than it looks.

The same can be said for editing the video once you have it.

But despite my lack of skills, I decided to make a short video with scenes from the 2011 NASCAR Preseason events. Using a FlipVideo camera, I recorded some shots from the recently completed NASCAR Sprint Media Tour as well as Daytona preseason testing.

As some of you know, taking video at a racetrack is normally forbidden. Turner (aka NASCAR.com) has an exclusive online video deal with NASCAR, so no one is permitted to record footage at a track during race weekend and post it online.

Testing didn't fall under that policy, though, so this was a rare opportunity. Below is the amateurish video which I spiced up by including the track "Faster Ride" from Cartel, one of my favorite bands.

Check it out!

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Why Doesn't Dale Earnhardt Jr. Smile As Much Anymore?

In front of the cameras or addressing a throng of reporters, Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't smile as much these days.

He speaks in a quiet, flat tone, often sounding tired. Even when the subject turns away from racing to something lighter – like his favorite hobbies – his demeanor is sometimes unchanged. Earnhardt Jr. doesn't look like he's having fun despite talking about having fun.

This is nothing new, however. It's been this way for the past couple seasons.

Consequently, some fans who watch his interviews and some reporters who ask him questions have concluded at various points that Earnhardt Jr. must feel beaten down, tired of trying to carry the sport on his shoulders and wishing he was somewhere else instead of the racetrack.

So is it true, Dale?

"To be honest, I'm happy inside," he said last week. "I promise."

But Earnhardt Jr. acknowledged the perception he's not as happy, and said he's noticed it while watching clips of a younger version of himself. He just doesn't know why.

"I'll see these videos of me from five years ago, and (I was) definitely a more jubilant, cheerier guy," he said. "I don't know if that's because I get older – (I've) been doing this so long – just the grind. The failures of the last several years definitely have a lot to do with it."

Away from the track, Earnhardt Jr. shows flashes of the grinning, fun-loving driver fans embraced in his days at Dale Earnhardt Inc. – back when he was winning. Of course, it might be easier to let loose publicly if he wasn't mired in a years-long slump.

"I think I've become more reserved, maybe due to how I've seen me be judged or analyzed," he said. "I've sort of changed my outward approach a little bit toward everybody. But I'm telling you, if I can get back to the racetrack and I can win a race and run well, it'll get a whole lot easier to be a little more (outgoing) and not be such an introvert."

So what makes Earnhardt Jr. happy these days, away from the track? Online racing, for one. Fantasy football. Playing basketball with friends on the half-court he had installed in his house. Deer hunting with Martin Truex Jr.

And perhaps most of all, Earnhardt Jr. values time spent with his family. During the offseason, the driver moved his mother into a new house on his expansive property and attended his sister Kelley's wedding.

A reporter asked Earnhardt Jr. if he's next in line for marriage (he does have a girlfriend, after all).

Not yet, the driver said.

"I'm glad the guy is the one who gets to ask, so I can plan it out and do the asking," he said. "But I don't know how it works. I don't know what happens to you, because I've never had it happen to me. So I can only guess that you'll know when you're ready to do it, and I'm not there yet."

Through all the adversity at the track, Earnhardt Jr. said there isn't anywhere else he'd rather spend his time. He's gotten stir crazy at the end of the offseason, unable to enjoy the last weeks of free time because the anticipation of the new season "is killing me."

"I get to feeling like I'm not doing anything and (when) I'm not productive, and I feel pointless and useless," he said. "It's fun when you go to the racetrack...especially for me needing to improve. The anxiousness and anticipation is tenfold to get to the track and see if this is going to work."

Racing, he said, "is the only thing I really think about the most."

To hear Earnhardt Jr. tell it, his passion for NASCAR hasn't dissipated. He still cares deeply, though he may be more reluctant to show it.

"I may not smile as much, and I may (be) a little monotone, but I have the same hopes and dreams that I've always had," he said. "I have the same anticipation and anxiety about the season, the race, the moment. All those things are still on fire inside me."

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Denny Hamlin's Crew Chief Wouldn't Change Any Chase Smack-Talk

During last season's Chase, crew chief Mike Ford became NASCAR's version of Rex Ryan (albeit without the booming voice and the foot fetish videos).

Like the New York Jets coach, Ford raised eyebrows with the comments he directed toward a team that others perceived to be better.

But while fans seemed to embrace Ryan's swagger, Ford's chatter wasn't as well-received. When the crew chief for Denny Hamlin surprised everyone by opening his mouth after a win at Texas, it didn't go over well in the garage.

Both publicly and privately, drivers and other crew chiefs questioned Ford and suggested he shouldn't have inserted himself into the conversation.

Ford claimed his team successfully rattled the No. 48's pit crew – forcing Chad Knaus to make a switch – and said "I think our race team is better than their race team."

Ford and Hamlin then went on to lose to Knaus and Jimmie Johnson when the No. 11 team gave up the lead in the final race of the season.

Two months later, though, Ford doesn't regret anything he said. In fact, he'd do it again.

"I simply answered the question," Ford said last week during the NASCAR Media Tour. "I was very confident in our race team – and I still am. And I'm very proud of that. I won't back down on that to anything.

"And in that, I never made any digs that they weren't good; there were no digs that went to them. I felt confident that our team was just as good and worthy of being where they were."

Ford added he'd rather not say anything at all than say something he didn't truly feel. And when he was asked at Texas about how his team stacked up against the No. 48, the words just came out.

In general, the typically quiet Ford seemed more excitable than normal during the Chase. Perhaps it was his Rex Ryan side revealing itself?

"What you were seeing was passion," Ford said. "It was, 'If anybody gets in our way, we'll knock them the heck out' – one of those type of emotions.

"No one has been able to get that close to the 48 as long as Denny has been in this sport, and to have things lined up in that manner and the season that we had ... it was an in-your-face kind of Chase. I'm a quiet guy, but you back me in the corner and you say things, I'll come swinging."

After Homestead, many people focused on Phoenix as the defining race of the Chase. Hamlin had dominated the day at Johnson's best track, but the team's fuel strategy forced Hamlin to pit while others stayed out and made it to the end without stopping for gas.

As a consequence, Hamlin's points lead heading into Homestead was only 15 instead of perhaps 70 or 80. And following the race, Hamlin was upset Ford never told him to start saving fuel.

Asked if he would have changed the fuel strategy at Phoenix, Ford argued last week there was nothing he could have done differently.

"You second-guess everything you do, and when the answers come up that you did all you can do, you just have to walk away," he said. "You can't wish it to be any different.

"The whole world will speculate, 'Oh, they could have taken a chance.' Well, had we taken a chance and run out of fuel –which we would have with close to 10 laps to go – you're not even going to finish second in the points, the way it panned out."

Ford said previous engine issues for Joe Gibbs Racing had led the team to decide on a more conservative engine package for Phoenix – to ensure a blown motor wouldn't end Hamlin's Chase hopes.

But being conservative may have ultimately cost Hamlin the championship.

"Everything comes with a compromise," Ford said, "and with that came a mileage compromise."

So with an emotional hit like that, were Hamlin's title chances over before he even got to Homestead? Some have speculated that Johnson basically won the championship at Phoenix because of the huge swing in momentum.

Ford rejected that idea.

"The emotional up and down of this sport is hard to overcome, but in that situation, by the time we rolled into Homestead, absolutely not," he said. "...We still left out of (Phoenix) with a lead."

Through the offseason, Hamlin and Ford haven't communicated much. They saw each other at the postseason banquet, but that was about it. To that end, Ford wasn't sure if Hamlin had gotten over the defeat.

He was sure of one thing, though: In the crew chief's mind, the sting of losing the championship wasn't going away anytime soon.

"You never get over it," Ford said. "I mean, you never, never get over it. This is your life. This is what you do. You'll never get over it.

"With that said, if you turn that energy into motivation, you'll be better because of it. But it'll hurt forever. I don't think it'll let up."

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Carl Edwards' Vietnam Trip An Eye-Opener To Roush Fenway Racing Driver

Never one to shy away from an opportunity to learn or experience something different, Carl Edwards planned his big offseason trip to a place where many Americans would never think to vacation: Vietnam.

Edwards and a few friends spent 10 days in Vietnam exploring the country and riding bikes, learning about another culture all along the way.

Though he called the trip a "neat experience," Edwards said he missed the United States after only a short time in Vietnam. The vast difference between the cultures – not only the language barrier, but the lack of basics for many Vietnamese – left him appreciating home more than ever.

"I had this trip planned, thinking it was going to be this great escape and a lot of fun," he said. "And a few days in, I was really ready to come home and see the family."

Edwards listed Vietnam's "general living conditions, the amount of food they didn't have, the quality of the water (and) the way their news and information was delivered" among the eye-openers on his trip.

The driver was particularly struck by the biased nature of the exhibits in Ho Chi Minh City's "War Remnants Museum" (which was formerly called the "American War Crimes Museum"). Edwards said the "lack of objective media" was surprising.

Though the museum didn't change his mind about the United States' role in the war, he said it did succeed in showing how truly terrible war can be.

"I respect more than ever our veterans who were over there fighting, because I can't imagine fighting a war in that environment, with that culture," he said. "The language barrier is impossible (and) the geography of the land would be nearly impossible to navigate through. Just a tough place."

Edwards said no one in Vietnam recognized him, though a funny moment occurred when he spotted a man wearing a Ford Racing T-shirt. The Roush Fenway Racing driver stopped his bike and tried to communicate with the man, but the language barrier meant "zero language interaction," Edwards said with a chuckle.

"I got him to pose with me for a picture, and he didn't even know that what I liked was his T-shirt," Edwards said. "He had no clue why this guy stopped on his bicycle and took a picture with him. But it was a lot of fun."

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Have You Heard The One About Tony Stewart And The Three Girlfriends?

When Tony Stewart agreed to show up for Joe Gibbs Racing's 20th anniversary media event on Thursday, he probably figured his former boss would throw around a few funny stories from their 12-year partnership.

But when Gibbs began to recall how he recruited Stewart to join JGR, Stewart quickly realized he was getting more than he bargained for.

"I didn't sign up for this part," he said helplessly as Gibbs launched into the story.

To hear Gibbs tell it, recruiting Stewart to join JGR was much more difficult than anything the coach experienced while recruiting college football players.

"This," Gibbs said, "was a flaming nightmare."

Before Gibbs could track down Stewart to get him to sign the papers, he had to work out a deal with then-owner Harry Ranier.

"Harry goes, 'I've got two other partners, and this is the amount of cash it's going to take to get Tony out of his deal,'" Gibbs recalled. "So I go to meet Harry over there and I walk in there and I've got the check, and as I go to hand him the check, he goes, 'Are you sure you want to do this?'"

Gibbs, brushing aside Stewart's reputation for being difficult, did the deal with Ranier anyway – then set out to find Stewart.

In trying to track Stewart down, Gibbs figured the best way to find the driver would be to contact his girlfriend. But Stewart didn't have just one, Gibbs said.

"The best (part) was, he had three girlfriends, OK?" Gibbs said, laughing. "So I'm trying to figure out which girlfriend is he with? I would literally call the house, and I'd always know if I hit it right, because they'd be real friendly: 'Oh yeah, I'm with Tony, I can get Tony.'

"Then the next time after that I'd call and they'd go, 'Don't call this number again!' So I guess he broke up with that one!"

Gibbs said Stewart was worth the trouble, though, calling it "one of the best deals we ever made." But he laughed as he recalled the many headaches Stewart caused over the years.

On that note, he couldn't help but point out how much Stewart has changed since becoming a team owner (aside from the Australia incident two week ago, of course).

"He becomes an owner and – you guys know – he doesn't have one ripple, he doesn't call Goodyear names," Gibbs said. "I'm kind of going like this: 'Did he have a lobotomy?'

"And then (the old Tony) came back, two weeks ago."

This prompted much laughter from the assembled media, and Stewart seemed OK with being the target of Gibbs' ribbing. But the man they call 'Smoke' usually gets the last word.

Asked the most important lesson Gibbs has taught him, Stewart replied, "Don't come back to the 20-year reunion."

He added: "I'm just hoping (Gibbs) still remembers a couple of those girls' numbers, because I don't remember where I put them."

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Media Tour Final Stop: Before Getting Married, Kyle Busch Recommends Looking At The Bottom Of Your Shoes

In some ways, the NASCAR media tour is like summer camp: You get together with a bunch of people, take field trips all over the place and eat all your meals together.

And then, just like camp, it suddenly ends.

The media tour wrapped up with visits to Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing today. Though we'll have longer stories from both of those events in the coming days, we'll share just one anecdote for now: Kyle Busch's comments on his wedding.

Considering Busch's hard-edged image, this was funny stuff. Here's what Busch had to say:

I'll tell you what the most nerve-wracking part of the wedding was: When you're standing there (before the ceremony).

My brother started it, bringing my parents down the aisle. And right then, I was like, 'Oh man. If this is this hard already, I can't imagine what it's going to be like when Samantha starts walking down.'

I started looking a little bit at everybody that was coming down, but then I looked up at the organ – trying to forget about it and put things in a different light.

And then the doors opened and she came out, and I was just like, 'Oh...man.' I knew I wouldn't look like I sap, but I was just (telling myself), 'Man, just don't cry! Don't make the pictures turn out like crap. Make the pictures look good!'

So I had a smile on and everything, and it was pretty awesome. It was a feeling I've never felt before. When you feel something like that, it changes quite a bit about what you've had happen and what you see happening for times to come.

It was the worst (nerves) I've ever felt, but yet it was the best feeling I've ever felt.

Of course, Kyle wasn't feeling so serene about the second part of his story. Older brother Kurt Busch played a practical joke on Kyle, writing on the bottom of his shoes before the wedding.

Yeah, Kurt did. It was 'HELP ME' or something like that. As soon as we got to the church and we got up to the front and had to kneel for the first time – because it was a traditional Catholic wedding – I was like, 'Oh, man! I forgot!' Because I had a deal with my Toyota friends that I was going to put Toyota on the bottom of my shoes, and I had forgotten to do it.

Well, Kurt's sitting in the audience just busting up laughing. And a couple of my guy friends were just looking at him like, 'What are you doing?'

I hadn't even looked. Who looks at the bottom of their shoes on their wedding day? I'll give this advice to anybody else who ever gets married: Look at the bottom of your shoes before you put 'em on, because somebody's going to screw with you!

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Instant Reaction: NASCAR's Point System, Chase Changes Come Up Short

At least it started off well.

Brian France, proudly standing before the assembled media and a live TV audience for his annual "State of the Sport" address, listed off NASCAR's accomplishments from the past year and let the anticipation build for the big announcement.

What would the changes be? The unknowns were exciting. Whatever NASCAR decided, it could be really big for a sport in need of a boost.

The basics of the new 1-43 points system had already leaked out, but the chief mystery was the amount of bonus points awarded to race winners.

It figured to be significant, because several NASCAR officials had indicated they were listening to the fans who had grown weary of hearing about "good points days." To that end, NASCAR had hinted it would award winning more than in the past.

Many fans say they prefer winning over consistency, and France stood tall and announced their cries had reached his ears.

This was the moment.

"The fans have been clear about one thing: They care about winning," France said. "They don't want the drivers to just be content with good points day or a good run."

Yes! YES!! Yesssssssssssssssss!!!! NASCAR had actually listened! Change was finally here!

I wanted to jump out of my seat and high-five ol' Brian. Heck, forget "Brian" – he would be "Mr. France" from now on to me.

So what was the grand reward for a win, Mr. France? Seven points would have a big impact in a 1-43 system, though 10 might be pretty cool. Would he go for even more bonus points and really make an impact?

Tell us, Mr. France.

"A driver...gets 43 points plus three bonus points for winning the race and a point for leading a lap, for a total of 47 points for the win," he said.

Three bonus points? Just three? That's going to make drivers suddenly risk their "good points days" and go for the win?

Oh, Brian...

"It's slightly better for a win than the old system, albeit just slightly," France conceded. "Most importantly, though, we didn't make a fundamental change in wins or anything else because there's always a balance. We like that balance."

Hang on...I'm confused.

First, France said he had heard the fans who were weary of hearing about consistency and good points days and wanted to see more of a reward for winning. Right? Yes, he said that.

But then he said the most important thing was that NASCAR didn't change the overall impact that wins have.

I slumped down in my chair, the disappointment starting to sink in. Maybe they hadn't listened after all.

France followed up a few minutes later by acknowledging NASCAR "may not take leaps in some instances," but that fans would see a "steady march to making and featuring winning as more and more important part of this sport."

"It's always important – don't misunderstand me," he said. "But...with our policies and approach, we're going to try to feature that."

In some ways, he's right. When I threw my support behind the new points system/Chase qualifying rules last week, one attractive element was the wild card rule.

The wild card truly has the potential to make the Chase bubble drivers go for wins (knowing a couple wins and a 20th-place points finish would get them into the playoff).

But I was certain the new system would include a bigger emphasis on winning. They said it would. But without a sizable points bonus, the Chase wild card by itself won't fundamentally change how drivers race. Not even close.

In true NASCAR tradition, consistency will rule. It will rule in the regular season and it will rule in the Chase. Whoever wins the championship will be the most consistent driver.

Look, that's not the worst thing in the world. That's how it's always been. But if France said he was going to award winning more and spoke of seeking more "Game 7 type moments" and all that, then what's up with the three bonus points?

"You can't expect a great season to just be measured on wins alone," France said. "... All we're saying is wherever we turn...to manage the balance and consistency of winning, you're seeing us take steps towards the winning portion of our rules package and procedures."

That's a positive step. It really is. But during a time when the sport is struggling and needs a big jolt, no one was looking for baby steps in Wednesday night's announcement.

I like the simplified points system. I like changing the Chase qualification rules. I really like using practice speeds to set the qualifying order at Cup races and that practices can also be used when qualifying gets rained out.

But those, too, are baby steps. There were no major leaps, nothing that might make a splash and attract new fans while bringing the old ones back.

NASCAR is banking on the racing alone being enough to draw more eyes and attention to the sport. And while that would have been good enough five years ago, I don't think it's enough now.

And that's disappointing.

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Media Tour Stop 14: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Faces Questions About His Father's Death

The great thing about visiting Hendrick Motorsports on the media tour is reporters can get about a dozen stories worth of material in about an hour.

But with only a short time to tell you about those stories before the next stop (NASCAR's announcement about the 2011 rule changes), I only have a chance to share one of them for now.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – a driver who attracts so much media interest that he can overshadow the current five-time Cup champ (Jimmie Johnson), a four-time Cup champ (Jeff Gordon) and the most respected driver in the garage (Mark Martin) – was peppered with questions Wednesday about the upcoming 10th anniversary of his father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Before we get into Earnhardt Jr.'s comments on his dad, let's talk about why reporters are asking these questions in the first place.

Dale Earnhardt Sr., who some say was the greatest NASCAR driver ever, was killed on Feb. 18, 2001. So in short time, the 10-year anniversary will be upon us.

During the week leading up to the anniversary – or on the day itself – nearly every media outlet that covers NASCAR will run some sort of retrospective story about Earnhardt Sr.'s death.

The stories might be about memories of the day, what's happened in NASCAR since the sport lost the Intimidator or even about how things might have been different had he lived.

And the people with the most important insight into those stories are (in no particular order): Earnhardt Jr., Richard Childress and Teresa Earnhardt.

Earnhardt Jr. knows this, understands his role in answering the questions and repeated several times on Wednesday that he's OK with discussing the anniversary – even if it's not his preferred topic of conversation.

But though he's fine with fielding the difficult questions and isn't offended by them, he doesn't care to go too far in depth. Mainly, he said, that's because the anniversary isn't about Earnhardt Jr.; it's about his dad.

"It has nothing to do with me," he said. "It shouldn't have anything to do with me. I'm not even in the equation. It's about his life.

"I understand my connection to him and I understand that I might be able to shed some kind of light on what the day means and how it makes me feel, but it really doesn't matter. What matters is we remember him for who he was on the track and what he did for us as individuals."

Earnhardt Jr. said he doesn't wish to participate in any tributes to his father and would prefer to "stand on the sidelines" and listen to others share their stories and memories of Earnhardt Sr.

"I just don't want to in any way overshadow what my father meant to the sport and this opportunity for people to recognize him," he said. "It's a great opportunity for him to be recognized and remembered, and I want him to get everything he deserves."

That said, Earnhardt Jr. doesn't plan to watch any of the TV tributes or special documentaries that will air around the date of the anniversary. It's not that he's trying to avoid them, he added, it's just that "nothing I could watch would be new to me."

"All the details are pretty fresh" about that day, he said. "It's not like in the movies, where things are blurry. It's all pretty fresh."

So what about those details? What specifically did he remember about the aftermath of that tragic day?

Earnhardt Jr. respectfully declined to go there, saying it was "tough talking about some of the details."

"I just feel like it's personal for me," he said quietly. "There's certain depths of it that I'm not comfortable discussing and I don't want to have out in the media or on the Internet. It's not important for people to have that information. It's just something that doesn't need to be out there – I'm uncomfortable with it."

Aside from the day itself, though, Earnhardt was willing to recall how he felt at Rockingham the following week. He remembered showing up at the track "because I felt responsible to go – but I didn't want to be there."

"After (the accident), I never wanted to see another racetrack or race car again," he said. "But after about a week, I got to thinking: 'What else am I going to do? My dad gave me this opportunity; I'd be foolish not to (keep going).'"

And when he wrecked on the first lap of that Rockingham race? Earnhardt Jr. said he hardly cared, aside from being embarrassed.

With the pain of the tragedy still stinging, what did it really matter if he crashed?

"It didn't break my heart any worse than it was already broken," he said. "I couldn't feel any worse than I was feeling."

As the anniversary approaches, Earnhardt Jr. said he won't mind seeing a huge tribute to his father. He wants everyone to recognize Earnhardt Sr. in their own way, and is fine with however they want to commemorate the day (heck, Michael Waltrip wrote a book about it).

But personally, he'd rather not expose his own feelings about the situation to the whole world.

"I know how I feel in my heart," he said. "I don't feel a real need to discuss it a lot. I want to do what's right. I want to honor him, but I don't need to do it in front of a bunch of people."

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Media Tour Stop No. 13: A Lunch With Legends

I really like my job most of the time, but some days kick way more ass than others.

This has been one of them.

At this afternoon's Ford Racing luncheon, Ford brought its three incoming NASCAR Hall of Famers – Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison and Bud Moore – to answer questions after the meal.

As it so happened, Gentleman Ned was at my table.

Here's the thing about covering famous people – most of the time, you have to disconnect from the fact that they're celebrities in order to do your job. You can't be successful if you're falling all over yourself interviewing Jeff Gordon – and besides, all famous people are still just regular people when it comes down to it.

So I don't get much of a thrill from interviewing today's NASCAR drivers on a daily basis, because they're just normal dudes and I'm just doing my job.

But when it comes to retired legends, it's different. I think guys like Ned Jarrett are so frickin' cool, because I can't comprehend what racing was like back then and I just have a tremendous amount of respect for all they've accomplished.

It's no surprise, then, that sharing a lunch table with Jarrett was a neat experience (duh, right?).

Everyone around the table took turns expressing their opinions about the sport, knowing full well that Jarrett's was the one that mattered most. Several times, I caught myself speaking on a topic – the points system, for example – and having my eyes dart over to Jarrett to see if he was agreeing with what I said.

The kind of perspective and institutional knowledge legends like Jarrett offer is so priceless, and I soaked up everything he said.

Jarrett likes the idea of simplifying the points system, but he didn't seem to get behind the idea of a HUGE bonus for winning races. He'd rather see consistency and winning weighed about equally, he said.

Each of us at the table shared our championship pick (Jarrett's was Carl Edwards) and our darkhorse to make the Chase (Jarrett went with AJ Allmendinger).

My favorite moment of that old-school perspective was when the table discussed last year's trash talk from Denny Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford. I teased Jarrett and asked if he ever trash-talked anyone.

"No!" he said, laughing. "But there weren't many people to talk to."

Up next: Hendrick Motorsports.

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Media Tour Stop No. 12: A Smiling King And His Court

Richard Petty is one happy dude. So is AJ Allmendinger. And Marcos Ambrose. And, frankly, everyone who survived at Richard Petty Motorsports.

Against tall odds, the organization somehow made it through a tremendous financial crisis when the previous owners ran into problems and planned to shutter the race team last fall.

Petty, NASCAR's greatest living legend, rallied and recruited investor Andrew Murstein to right the sinking ship. Just several months later, the team appears healthy and with a bright future.

Because the drama mostly played out in boardrooms, it's probably hard to grasp just how iffy the situation really was. But from the sounds of it, RPM was basically down to its last hope – and Murstein's Medallion Financial Co. was it.

So it's understandable that smiles and laughs were in abundance at the RPM stop. Allmendinger and Ambrose – both full of personality – were two of the most excited, optimistic drivers of the entire media tour so far.

Check back next week for more on RPM. Sorry for the brief entry, but the next stop is already starting.

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Media Tour Stop No. 11: Breakfast In A Furniture Store

It was an early start to Day 3 of the Media Tour, with reporters still rubbing the sleep from their eyes and many likely wondering if they were still dreaming.

After all, the first stop of the morning seemed somewhat surreal: Breakfast in a furniture store.

Since Furniture Row Racing's race shop is in Colorado, a field trip halfway across the country was clearly out of the question. So the team had a local Furniture Row store open its doors early and served up a big breakfast spread.

Media members ate in the dining section of the store – on the actual tables for sale, sitting on chairs with sale tags attached.

My seat said it was $75, which I didn't intend to purchase but feared a "You Stain It, You Buy It" policy with the salsa from my breakfast burrito.

Anyway, though former Dale Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Pete Rondeau calls the shots atop the pit box at Furniture Row, the real star of the show was Regan Smith.

And Mr. Smith, it seems, is quite confident about his chances this year. He predicted Furniture Row would be running "consistent top-10s" by the end of the season.

"At the end of the year, I felt like I was finally understanding a little bit about the Cup racing and what's going on," Smith said. "... It's like, ‘OK, we're going to go out and make the most of what we've got this year – and we're going to make a lot of out of it.'

"So for me personally, my confidence is as high as it's ever been, hands down."

I left the Furniture Row store wondering if the customers who planned to shop there later would detect the smell of bacon and grease, and whether that would make them more or less likely to buy a kitchen table.

The day is just getting started. There are five more stops today: Richard Petty Motorsports, a Ford Racing lunch, Hendrick Motorsports, the big NASCAR points announcement and Sprint's unveiling of the new Miss Sprint Cups.

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Media Tour Stop No. 10: Kasey Kahne 'Needed A Change' ... And Got One

After a pre-dinner reception hosted by TRG Motorsports (that was Stop No. 9, at which nothing was announced and therefore not blog-worthy), the media was treated to a nice meal provided by ESPN and Red Bull Racing.

ESPN had one brief announcement: Rusty Wallace's contract has been extended through the end of ESPN's current NASCAR TV deal, which means he'll be on your TV sets until at least the end of 2014.

The main focus for the Red Bull portion of the evening was split between Brian Vickers (who fielded another round of questions about his recovery from blood clots) and newcomer/lame duck driver Kasey Kahne.

Kahne is in a situation perhaps unmatched in NASCAR history: Having already signed for 2012 and beyond at Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne is basically a one-year rent-a-driver for Red Bull (which booted Scott Speed in the offseason).

From an outsider's view, it has all the potential to be a strange, awkward arrangement. But Kahne pointed out that his final year at Richard Petty Motorsports figures to have been far worse than what awaits this season.

In the grand scheme of things, especially after so much uncertainty surrounding where he'd land for 2011, Kahne's Red Bull ride is actually pretty sweet.

"Rick (Hendrick) told me that whatever it was, it would be right – and he would make sure it was right," Kahne said. "This whole Red Bull deal came together, and it's right. It's as good as anything I've ever had, if not the best thing I've ever had."

Clearly, that wasn't the case last year. Kahne was excited about his chances heading into the 2010 season, but "then it just really fell apart pretty quickly," he said.

Kahne completely lost his brakes several times. His car sustained broken parts on seven different occasions during the season, he said.

"I was worn out, and then some other stuff happened later in the season that made my mind up that I needed to change, and that was what I did at that point in time," Kahne said, referring to the aftermath of the Charlotte race. "I'm glad I did, because it was good for me to get out of there – it would have only gotten worse."

Kahne said his confidence wasn't necessarily suffering, but his morale was. And what he needed the most heading into his tenure with Hendrick was something to spark his inner fire.

"I think what I needed was a change – and I got it," he said. "That's the biggest thing I needed, to kind of let go and move on from where I was. I have that now, and I feel like we can do all kinds of good stuff this year, and that will be great going into next season.

"I think this year is a year that we can get off to a great start and have a lot of fun."

Of course, just because Kahne makes that fun transition to the Red Bull lifestyle doesn't mean crew chief Kenny Francis fits the brand's "edgy" mold.

Francis, it seems, is about as dry as they come.

"He's probably not the edgiest guy I know," Kahne said with a smile, "but that's fine."

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Never Much Of A Party Guy, Brad Keselowski Having 'More Fun' With Miller Lite

When Miller Lite announced last April it was moving its NASCAR sponsorship from Kurt Busch to Brad Keselowski beginning in 2011, some garage insiders seemed surprised.

Keselowski didn't have a reputation as being much of a party guy – or even much of a drinker. So his alliance with Miller – a company whose presence in NASCAR exists in order to sell truckloads of beer – initially seemed like an odd fit.

Certainly, not all drivers during the Winston Cup era were regular smokers. So there's precedent for a driver not being a heavy user of the product he's pushing.

Still, given Keselowski's straight-laced reputation, I wondered how the driver viewed his new partnership with Miller.

Here's what he said:

I grew up racing all my life, with my mom and my dad and my family. And the code that you had for racing was that you worked hard, left everything on the table – and you never had any fun.

You never went to a party after you won a race; you went to Big Boy with your mom and dad and you got the 'Brawny Lad' (steak sandwich) and a shake and (celebrated like), 'Yeah, we won!' And that was post-race.

One of the things I appreciated the most about driving for Dale Jr. was the ability to, for the first time in my life, have fun racing. Really have fun – not just winning, because that's fun for everybody – but really having fun and enjoying your role.

So I look at Miller Lite as almost another graduation of that. I actually enjoy it. They're opening me up and allowing me to have more fun. I think it's a blessing. I really do.

If you follow Keselowski on Twitter, you know the sponsor/driver relationship has seemed natural so far. He casually works in Miller Lite references (like this one) and nursed a bottle of beer during Monday night's media interviews.

Perhaps as long as Keselowski seems sincere with his sponsor plugs, the fans won't mind that he's not likely to get wasted and drunk-dial Carl Edwards on an off-weekend.

Although they probably wouldn't mind if he did.

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Media Tour Stop No. 8: Richard Childress Calls His Shot

First of all, you're probably wondering how this blog jumped from Stop No. 4 to Stop No. 8. Let me explain.

The fifth stop was a breakfast where Michael Waltrip spoke about his new book and his recollections of Dale Earnhardt (if you hadn't heard, the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt's fatal accident is rapidly approaching). Stop No. 6 was a visit from Nationwide Series drivers, and Stop No. 7 was a trip to Charlotte Motor Speedway to see the site of the "World's Largest HD Screen" currently being installed there.

While all those stops may have been interesting (particularly the part where Bruton Smith discussed circumstances that may lead NASCAR to ditch the Chase), I had to catch up on some other work before re-joining the tour for Stop No. 8: Richard Childress Racing. My bad on that.

Childress usually serves the best food on the media tour, which is obviously irrelevant to fans but leaves the media quite pleased and attracts a big crowd to the team's shop in Welcome, about an hour away from Charlotte. If you aren't familiar with the inner workings of the media, trust me on this: These people LOVE to eat.

This year, Childress also provided Budweiser in addition to wine from his nearby Childress Vineyards. Let the record to show that I did not partake, lest this blog be filled with typos and the like.

Anyway, Childress started things off with a bang by making a guarantee that one of his teams would win the Sprint Cup championship.

Bold, right?

"This year is the year to kick Jimmie (Johnson) off that throne," he said. "This is the year to do it, and it's going to be RCR – I feel certain. I'm gonna make that predicament."

(Editor's note: "Predicament" is not a typo from me drinking too much Budweiser at the lunch. As I said, I didn't drink on the job. Childress really did say "predicament.")

Childress' Babe Ruth moment raised some eyebrows among the crowd, and a reporter followed up by asking Childress about his "guarantee."

"I didn't guarantee it," Childress replied, "I just said we was gonna do it."

Huh?

Either way, the point is Childress and his team feel very confident about their chances this season following a successful year in which they put all three cars in the Chase and almost won the whole thing.

Of course, now Childress has four cars – Paul Menard being the new addition. Since the team ran like crap the last time it had four cars, reporters had many a question about whether the company would be hurt by expansion again.

The drivers answered that the company was prepared this time – and more well-funded than the last go-round with four cars. Menard, as many fans know, brings sponsorship money from his billionaire family to help his racing efforts.

"He's proved he's a deserving driver in the Cup Series," Childress said of Menard. "It made me proud to get him over here."

And clearly, the team's best shot at backing up Childress' "predicament" is Menard.

...

....

.....

JUST KIDDING! C'mon, you didn't think the Menard thing was for real, right?

Nah, the real favorite from the team is Kevin Harvick, with his awesome new Budweiser paint scheme (seriously...it really is awesome). It's obvious by the way he speaks and carries himself that Harvick is extremely confident about this season and truly believes he can win his first Cup title.

Don't count out Clint Bowyer either, though. Bowyer has performed well every time he's made the Chase (except for that pesky 150-point penalty that crushed his hopes last year. By the way, he said he's not over the penalty and it still "sucks.").

Could Bowyer possibly pull off a championship season?

"I think we can," he said. "I think I can win the championship someday. I don't know if this is going to be the year, but I feel like I get better every year, we get better as an organization every year and we get closer.

"(Harvick's title run) has to open my eyes. I realize he's in the same equipment as I am and did better with it. That wakes me up, makes me want to work harder."

And finally, this blog can't end without mentioning the well-liked, well-respected Jeff Burton. So there you have it – he's mentioned.

Next up on Day 2 of the "NASCAR Sprint Media Tour Hosted By Charlotte Motor Speedway Which Is Also Known As The Track Formerly Called Lowe's Motor Speedway" is a reception for TRG Motorsports.

Then it's a dinner extravaganza shared by both Red Bull Racing (woooo, Kasey Kahne, ladies!) and ESPN (woooo, Shannon Spake and Jamie Little, guys!).

Check back afterward for what's sure to be a wacky, Red Bull-fueled late night recap.

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Media Tour Stop No. 4: Shorter NASCAR Races Needed, Fox Sports Chairman Says

Fox Sports chairman David Hill called for shorter NASCAR races and pledged to put the focus back on the drivers during an interview session with reporters late Monday night.

Hill, an outgoing Australian with a booming voice, immediately answered "Oh yeah, definitely...absolutely" when asked if the length of NASCAR races should be reduced.

"I think the racing is far too long," he said. "Right now, there are more opportunities for (other activities) than any other time in man's history. I think that a lot of the races are too long. I think probably three hours would be ideal."

Hill's desire for shorter races is somewhat surprising, since many people believe the television networks don't mind the longer races so they can sell more commercials.

But Hill said a 30-to-40-minute pre-race show, three-hour race broadcast and 15-minute post-race wrapup would be ideal.

And that was just one of many topics the influential Hill touched on. Among the others:

–– Focus on the drivers. Hill set the Fox/Speed agenda for this season as one that will put the spotlight back onto the drivers.

"What this sport is all about is the drivers," he said. "Everything else in NASCAR is an afterthought. People follow the sport because the drivers are heroes.

"The Car of Tomorrow became the greatest red herring in the history of this sport. It took the emphasis away from the heroes. And what we're trying to do with our programming is move it back."

Asked specifically how Fox and Speed would achieve that goal, Hill said he didn't know yet.

"I'll figure it out," he said with a smile. "We've got three weeks to go yet."

–– Consistent start times. Hill said he's happy with the consistent start times and didn't give any indication he wanted to see change in that area.

He said he believed every Truck race should be on a Friday night, every Nationwide should be run on a Saturday night and the Cup race should start at 1 p.m. on most Sundays – all for the sake of familiarity.

Hill compared it to the NFL – every start time is the same, and fans know there's also a game each Sunday and Monday night.

There are "too many other things going on in people's lives" to expect fans to memorize all the various start times otherwise, he said.

NASCAR President Mike Helton indicated last week that the sanctioning body is looking at changing start times for some of its races.

–– Renewing Fox's TV rights deal with NASCAR. Hill deflected questions about whether he was interested in pursuing a new TV deal with NASCAR when the current one expires (Fox is entering the fifth year of its eight-year NASCAR contract).

The chairman said he would "absolutely" like to continue the relationship, but said NASCAR was "not as good as it was" in terms of being good business for Fox. He wouldn't make any commitments, adding "three years is a long time" to predict what might happen.

–– A lack of appreciation for Jimmie Johnson. Along with Hill's perceived lack of focus on the drivers, he said there was a dearth of excitement in the media over Johnson's five straight titles.

"It's one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen in world sport, and everyone's treating it as ho-hum!" Hill said, practically yelling. "You people are treating it as ho-hum: 'Oh yes, he's won again.' You are so blasé. Honestly, what's wrong with you? Don't you realize what Jimmie Johnson has achieved?"

–– Online streaming. Don't look for Fox's race broadcasts to be streamed online anytime soon. Hill said he liked the idea of delivering a "sensational" viewing experience to homes with HD TV sets and surround sound – an entertainment value the viewer can't get on a mobile device.

Hill said watching NASCAR on a mobile phone would be like seeing tiny dots go around in a circle. To that end, he said "we've got no imminent plans" go stream race broadcasts online.

–– A new points system. Hill, who said he's been covering motorsports since he was 17 years old, is in favor of NASCAR changing the points system – particularly if it awards winning more than it has.

"The points didn't emphasize winning enough," he said. "The hero was the one who won – not three points here, seven points here. Listen, sports are about winning."

–– TV ratings. Hill, who said he believes Fox has "the best auto coverage in the world," said he's concerned when ratings drop in any sport.

He said he'll be watching ratings for the first three races of this season to see if NASCAR has made any progress in reversing the decline in significant demographics.

He also said NASCAR is "trying desperately" to get out of its current slump.

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Media Tour Stop No. 3: Penske Racing

Crisp white shirts, a pristine race shop and a billionaire team owner. Yep, Penske Racing was the third stop on the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour.

Dinner was Ruby Tuesday's (of course) and the beverage choices included Miller Lite (naturally). Dessert was a lengthy sponsor plugfest that recalled the Ganassi stop earlier in the day.

Personally, I skipped Kurt Busch and used the allotted the media time on Brad Keselowski instead.

Keselowski, for all the trouble he gets himself into with other drivers on the track, is an extremely intelligent, quotable guy. In fact, he's one of the most enjoyable interviews on the circuit thanks to his opinionated, honest approach.

A couple Keselowski samples (we'll have a separate Keselowski blog at a later date):

-- (On old school drivers saying they used to race hard every lap) "Ah, that's bullshit. I call bullshit right there."

-- (On why people are criticizing the current points system) "The only reason people are bitching about it is because they don't like the guy who's winning."

-- (On his candid nature) "You do what you do because it's what you mean and it's how you feel – so you're true to yourself. The more I've been around fans, the more I've seen them appreciate that more than anything else. When I talk to them or I talk to you, I tell you what I think."

You get the idea.

We also heard from Sam Hornish Jr., who is clearly trying to keep his head up under trying circumstances. The three-time IndyCar Series champion who was once known as one of the top American drivers has fallen on hard times.

Bumped from the Sprint Cup Series, Hornish will now drive an 11-race Nationwide Series schedule in a part-time effort. He claimed to be OK with the decision, but referenced getting back to Cup several times and said he must prove himself all over again.

After the Penske visit, the buses returned to the media hotel, where Fox Sports chief David Hill had some interesting comments about the sport.

We'll save those for tomorrow.

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'Be More Positive' Lecture From McReynolds Leaves Reporters Groaning

The groans began almost immediately.

Speed NASCAR analyst Larry McReynolds, working as the M.C. for the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing media tour stop, was wrapping up the program when he decided to offer some "off-script" remarks to the 200-plus journalists in attendance.

He then proceeded to remind the media that we all make our living in the sport and asked for us to be more positive in 2011.

"You all know that no matter what role you play, we've got to roll our sleeves up and we've got a lot of work to do in 2011 to get this sport back where it was at one time," McReynolds said. "I know it's easy to write about all the bad things and I know it can't all be about the good things, but (here's) the only thing I reach out to you:

"If it's television ratings (you're writing about), we know the ratings are down. How about also promoting that we're second only to the NFL? If there's 25,000 empty seats at Michigan, how about making sure you document there's still over 100,000 people in those grandstands?

"Things like that will get our sport back to where we were, along with storylines like this (Ganassi) group right here and with the type of racing that we had in 2010."

While McReynolds was speaking, there were reporters literally groaning and cursing under their breath. I have it on tape (probably because I was among them).

Afterward, media members mockingly told each other, "C'mon, be more positive!" or "Hey, stop being so negative!" This was often followed by an eye roll or a head shake.

Some background for you: On last year's media tour, lecturing the media was a common theme. And throughout the season, the NASCAR media corps was a common target for those looking to blame the sport's troubles on someone.

Time and again, reporters were told (both in private conversations and press conferences) that they deserved some of the blame for NASCAR's decline.

The reasoning? Because if the media wrote that the sport was struggling and fewer people were coming to the races or watching them on TV, fans reading the stories would be less likely to attend or tune in themselves.

I've always rejected that theory – strongly. I firmly believe NASCAR fans can make up their own minds and aren't a bunch of lemmings who will just go along with whatever the media says.

Trust me, it'd be nice if I had magical powers to convince everyone that my opinions were the right opinions. But given the amount of debate and pushback I get from fans every day, I'm pretty sure that's not true.

Fans can think for themselves and make up their own minds – about everything. I can't convince someone to like Jimmie Johnson because he's a good guy, and I can't convince someone that the racing is somehow bad if it's actually good.

So if you want me to believe tweeting about declining TV ratings or blogging about an attendance issue is somehow contributing to that problem, that's a tough sell.

I truly doubt being "more positive" about ratings and attendance and the sport in general is going to bring fans back. And, by the way, that's not my job anyway.

The media is supposed to report on what's happening, not sweeping something under the rug or glossing over an issue to make it look better than it is.

Yeah, I make my living in NASCAR – but it's up to NASCAR to fix its problems, not me. I do like the sport and I want it to succeed – not only because of my career, but because I enjoy watching it as a fan. But I don't think I'd be doing my job very well if I didn't report the truth.

It's not all sunshine and flowers. Far from it. People deserve to know what's going on and use the information to make up their own minds.

Declining ratings and attendance, for example, is a very real issue that could impact the sport's future and have tremendous financial consequences.

But McReynolds – and many, many others in the industry who share his thinking – believe the media should take the positive approach: Sure, we might have lost a quarter of our audience – but we still have a lot of people watching!

It's all just spin. As one reporter griped, "That's like saying Kevin Conway isn't slow; he's still going 190 mph!"

At the very least, offering a large group of people suggestions on how to do their jobs makes everyone defensive, and it's certainly not going to make anyone change how they do their jobs.

If anything, it only increases the growing divide between those who attempt to be objective about the sport's issues and those inside the garage who believe "If you're not being positive, you're against us."

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Media Tour Stop No. 2: Stewart-Haas Racing

After lunch, the media piled into a trio of buses for the first field trip of the week, a short excursion to the Stewart-Haas Racing shop.

No real news came out of the SHR stop, except a slimmer-looking Tony Stewart mentioned he now eats five small meals per day instead of two big meals.

For some reason, the idea of a fitter Stewart proved to be very attractive to reporters, who served up a variety of appetizer-quality questions about his new regimen.

The main course was to be whichever reporter dared to ask Stewart about his Australia incident; after all, Stewart would surely eat that person alive.

The way Stewart likes to operate is this: If he entertains questions about a controversy, he wants to do it once. Ask him about it a week later, and he may not be as accommodating.

Since Stewart addressed the matter at length during preseason testing at Daytona, any reporter who followed up in an attempt to seek more information figured to out of luck.

And perhaps beheaded.

But when one brave soul finally broached the Australia subject with Stewart, it actually didn't turn out so bad.

Reporter: "I know you've addressed the Australia situation, but for those of us who weren't on the conference call, could you talk a little bit about that?"

Stewart: "We covered it in Daytona and it's been transcribed, so..."

And that was all Stewart said on the microphone, though he told Associated Press writer Jenna Fryer at the end of the session that he didn't know the current status of the situation or whether the other man involved in the fight would press charges.

Anyway, Stewart kept his cool and appeared relaxed throughout the session, which makes him 2-for-2 in not snapping at any reporters this year.

But as we know, it's still early.

Newman displayed his typical dry humor, making short, witty comebacks to questions. When one reporter asked about "bad guys" in the sport – Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, etc., Newman volunteered to be this year's bad guy.

Why?

Because, he reasoned, Busch wins a ton of races and Keselowski won the Nationwide Series title last year – so it can't be that bad.

All in all, the Stewart-Haas Racing stop was a finely executed media session that served everyone well.

After a bit of writing time (which is going on now – hence this blog), the media will hop back into the buses for a Penske Racing visit.

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Media Tour Stop No. 1: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing

The media tour kicked off with a lunch and a visit from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (although there was no one named "Earnhardt" at the function).

No one really expected Teresa Earnhardt to show up (I mean, that's asking a lot, right?), but the media was visited by the Energizer Bunny, shown a demonstration of Energizer headlamps and was informed of a LiftMaster sponsorship via an opening garage door.

So there's that.

For the first 30 minutes (it seemed like longer), Ganassi trotted out sponsor representatives who stiffly read from prepared remarks. This was as boring as it sounds, and left many in the room staring off into space or burying their heads in their phones.

Finally breaking the ice about 50 minutes into the event, Jamie McMurray was credited the first good line of the day. He told a story about one of the coolest moments of his impressive 2010 season, recalling how when he walked into the Charlotte media center after winning his third race of the year, the media wasn't surprised like they'd been when he won Daytona and Indy.

He liked that feeling.

Juan Pablo Montoya, looking more slender than last year (but saying he hadn't lost any weight), was convincing in stating his case for making the Chase in 2011. He noted what an awful start his No. 42 team endured – with many wrecks not of his doing – that led to ultimately missing the playoff last year.

Ganassi's engine alliance with Richard Childress Racing has resulted in some very powerful motors, and it's not a stretch to think both McMurray and Montoya could make the Chase this season.

To that end, team co-owner Felix Sabates predicted his two cars would not only make the Chase, but said both would contend for the championship.

The best news of the event came when Steve Hmiel – father of injured racer Shane Hmiel – told reporters that his son could make a full recovery from a racing accident if therapy went as planned. Hmiel detailed his son's surgeries and said much progress had been made since incident occurred in an October USAC practice.

We're on the bus now and headed to the next stop: Stewart-Haas Racing.

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NASCAR Media Tour: Four-Day Marathon Kicks Off In Charlotte

Every major NASCAR team and driver will speak with reporters this week as part of the annual preseason media tour, four days of interviews, interviews, a few meals and more interviews.

It's a media extravaganza: More than 200 reporters from around the world (well, more like 199 Americans plus one guy from Germany) will descend upon Charlotte to get the thoughts of NASCAR competitors on how the 2011 season will unfold.

Most of these sessions are the standard stuff: "We're really looking forward to a great year" or "We're going to win a lot of races this year" or "We really think we can contend for the Chase."

But when drivers or team owners say more interesting things than that, we'll be sure to bring it to you right here.

Stay tuned...Day 1 begins in less than two hours!

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