Daytona 500 Buildup Begins With NASCAR Media Day

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Kurt Busch Joins Twitter, Embraces Social Media For NASCAR Fans

Longtime social media holdout Kurt Busch has finally joined Twitter, making him only the third NASCAR Cup champion to do so. Busch is tweeting under the name "@kurtbusch22" and has gained just over 1,000 followers in the two days since he started.

"I have no idea what all this means, but I know that it's a big step for me," he said. "And I know that it's an important step for us to be involved in.

"We need to do more to connect with our fans and draw attention to our sport, and what better way than to have thousands – hopefully tens of thousands – following us and knowing they can get their information quickly and knowing that it's (coming from) us. And it is."

Busch said he's relying on some help from people close to him to get him started on Twitter, but pledged he'll be "out there doing what we need to do to connect more to our fans." His longtime public relations representative Tom Roberts is also now tweeting, using the name "@22carPR."

Having Twitter followers has also become very important to sponsors, and Busch's new sponsor (Shell) is no exception. One thing Busch will be promoting via social media, for example, is a new Shell program called "WINSdays with Kurt Busch."

"When I win on Sundays, if you have a Shell Saver gas card, you save 22 cents per gallon on Wednesdays at the pump," he said. "I mean, that's a huge promotion that not just NASCAR fans will see, but everyone who goes to the gas station to fill up. Who wants to save 22 cents per gallon? Everybody."

The other two NASCAR Cup champions who use Twitter are Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip (@allwaltrip) and Bobby Labonte (@bobby_labonte).

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Danica Patrick Cautious About Expectations For 2011 NASCAR Season

After a humbling first season in the Nationwide Series, Danica Patrick is back for another try. And she hopes you'll believe she's a good driver.

"I want to do well," she said. "I want you (media) guys to have good things to write about me. I want people to be entertained. I want them to believe in me as a driver. I mean, yeah, it's a big part of my job. If people don't believe that I'm good and care about me, then I have less of a job."

Of course, believing and doing are entirely different – as the results showed last season. Though both she and JR Motorsports declared top-15 finishes would be the goal heading into 2010 (which was certainly ambitious for someone who had never driven a stock car), it turned out Patrick managed no top-15s and only one top-20 in her 13 races.

She reminded reporters about her lack of experience several times during NASCAR Media Day on Thursday and tried to lower expectations for the upcoming season.

Patrick said it's "not realistic" to expect she'd get great results all the time and said she's realized "it's OK if I don't set the world on fire every weekend."

She compared herself to some of NASCAR's top drivers who struggle at times, noting: "Let's face it – there's a hell of a lot of really good Cup drivers where sometimes, you just have a bad weekend and you don't finish well. It doesn't make them not a good driver, it just means that something in the situation wasn't right."

Patrick emphasized there were times when she was "relatively competitive" last year but didn't get the results she wanted. As the year went on, her solution was to be "a little more optimistic...in not letting the results get to me so much."

Though she's looking forward to the season, Patrick confessed to reporters that she's nervous people will place higher expectations on her the second time she comes to a track, thinking she'll do better.

"Thank God I did better at Fontana that second time," she said. "Now I would imagine that would be the expectation for all the tracks I go back to for the second time. That's the other side of it – there was such an improvement from the first to second time that it becomes the new standard. But that's probably not going to happen."

In fact, she said, it's a major reason she opted to skip the Daytona ARCA race this year after finishing sixth last year.

"To be honest, if I go back for a second time – I guess this is maybe my own fear – but you all expect me to do better,"  she said. "There's that added pressure of like, it's not just to go out there and drive around for the day. It's like, OK, I did it last year and I need to do it better this year. So that's an added pressure – public perception.

"And it's a different car as well. I felt like whenever I drove a different car...they feel different. They do. When I got out onto the track in a Nationwide car, I thought, 'This is a lot harder.'"

Plus, she added, she wasn't sure if her schedule would allow for an ARCA race. Staying in Daytona for two weeks (like the Cup drivers do) seemed like a big time commitment.

"It takes a lot of time, so I didn't know what the schedule would allow," she said. "I mean, I was here for a couple of weeks last year."

Patrick, asked about the large group of reporters surrounding her table at Media Day compared to other drivers, said she felt relieved to see people after the numbers dwindled after some races last year.

"I just feel really lucky," she said. "I'm lucky people care about my story and they want to read about it or hear about it, and that you all write about it. At this point in time, I feel weird when you're all not around."

One more note: Patrick's contract is up in both Nationwide and IndyCar at the end of this year, which means she could be in for a big payday if she decides to commit to NASCAR full-time. But she said it's too early to make such decisions.

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Denny Hamlin Newest Endorser For Nike's Jordan Brand Apparel

NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin doesn't have a nickname, but that could change after he became the newest endorser for Nike's Jordan Brand apparel.

"Air Denny," anyone?

Hamlin, who finished second in the Sprint Cup Series point standings last year, holds Charlotte Bobcats courtside season tickets, and has struck up a relationship with Bobcats owner Michael Jordan over the last couple years. The two have played golf together, and Jordan often texts Hamlin about the races.

Their relationship has now expanded to the business side with Hamlin's new endorsement deal. The Jordan Brand (famous for the "Jumpman" logo) will appear in NASCAR for the first time.

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"I think it's a big deal for myself, and really for NASCAR," Hamlin said Thursday. "It's a dream come true for me. For me, the Jordan Brand represents excellence in sports, and it's really good to have that partnership."

Hamlin said Jordan is a bigger motorsports fan than people realize.

"He always used to talk to me last year about how the race went, because he watched and had questions like, 'Why did this happen?' or 'Why did that happen?'" Hamlin said. "So I dug a little deeper and found out that he's had his motorcycle (race) team since 2004.

"He's always been an avid motorsports fan, but he never knew the right situation to get into NASCAR – and he felt like I was the right representative for them."

As part of the deal, Hamlin will wear a Jordan-branded firesuit and gloves. Shoes could be a piece of the deal that comes later, but Nike doesn't produce any fireproof shoes for racing.

"Yet," Hamlin interjected.

We assume it wouldn't be good publicity if Hamlin's Air Dennys melted every race, right?

Anyway, a shoe is possible sometime down the line. For now, the relationship is just beginning – and Hamlin thinks it will only be a good thing.

"A lot of these athletes that come to these races every week, they don't always recognize or understand us," he said. "They're going to see it and recognize the brand. ... For me, this is a huge stepping point and hopefully something that turns into something very big within the sport."

Hamlin added he hopes to develop an apparel line for race fans down the road through the Jordan brand.

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Kyle Busch Doesn't Mind Cheering For Oft-Booed Athletes

On many weekends, there's no NASCAR driver who gets more boos than Kyle Busch. So when he finds himself sitting down to watch other sports on TV (or in person, like when he attended last week's Super Bowl), Busch said it's easy to relate to the "bad guys."

Not that they're bad people, necessarily. But because they're fellow boo-bird targets, Busch can relate to a Barry Bonds, Tom Brady or Ben Roethisberger.

"Yeah, it makes me relate to them – it makes me like them," Busch said. "Barry Bonds is a great baseball player, you can't deny that – although there (was) some speculation late in his career that might have hurt him a little bit. But overall, the guy did a lot for baseball and was very good at what he did.

"A lot of people don't like Tom Brady. Why? You know, he's very good at what he does. ... Same thing with Roethisberger. There's a lot of athletes I can relate to that are under the same scope as I am, and I like all those guys."

When it comes down to who he supports as a fan, Busch said he turns an eye toward talent and greatness. That's the primary factor in determining which athletes to pull for, he said.

"I like people that are good at what they do," he said. "It's not that they know they're good at what they do, it's that they're accomplished."

So all the boos and hatred directed toward a Big Ben or a LeBron-type player don't influence Busch's feelings as a sports fan?

"I have no problem rooting for guys like that, nope," he said. "Not one bit."

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Says He Doesn't Need Family On Team To Succeed

One of the ongoing theories floated by fans is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s lack of success has to do with his environment at Hendrick Motorsports.

When Earnhardt Jr. was winning races, he was at Dale Earnhardt Inc. on a team made up of family (like uncle Tony Eury Sr. and cousin Tony Eury Jr.) and close friends. The majority of Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8 team had been with the driver since his days in the Nationwide Series.

So has the lack of familiar faces at Hendrick had a negative impact on his success over the years? Many in Junior Nation continue to believe their favorite driver had a difficult relationship with former crew chief Lance McGrew and believe new crew chief Steve Letarte will get along better with Earnhardt Jr.

When I asked Earnhardt Jr. about this theory on Thursday afternoon, he responded that he didn't believe the close-knit group at DEI had a different impact on his racing than the group he has – or has had – at Hendrick.

Here's his full response:

"I don't want to believe that (being surrounded by family/longtime friends) has an affect on it. I think that me and Steve are going to get along really good.

"It's important to me to have a friendship and a trust built up, because you need to be able to lean on people and trust what you're hearing from them, trust what they're doing. That's more important than the professional working relationship.

"I was able to build a great friendship with Lance in the short time we were together. I've never really had a problem doing that. And I had a real good friendship with a lot of guys on the team. We were a team, you know? I felt part of that group. I felt like I fit in there and felt like we had a good package.

"So I don't want to believe that needs to happen for me to be successful. (The DEI No. 8 team) was a unique group, and we all kind of did work together from the Nationwide Series up – and if they came in, I trusted them immediately because it was Pops (Eury Sr.) bringing them in. I never questioned him.

"But I don't want to believe that has to be the occasion for me to have success."

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Brad Keselowski May Have A Payback List, Won't Say Who's On It

Brad Keselowski has made a habit of ruffling other drivers' feathers on the track. And Keselowski along the way, Keselowski has also roughed up a few times himself.

Since he was involved in his share of incidents last season – both those of his doing and those that weren't – Keselowski was asked Thursday if he keeps a list of drivers for payback.

"Yeah, it's on my phone – it's in 'Notes,'" he joked. "It's capitalized: 'THE LIST.'"

Keselowski was clearly just kidding. In reality, he said, there is no list – at least not on paper.

"I don't keep a list," he said. "Well, maybe I do. It's probably in the back of my mind. It's not written down though, if that makes you feel any better."

The bottom line is, Keselowski said, there's no "reset" button in the offseason that somehow forgives all past incidents. He's well aware of both the drivers he owes, and the ones who owe him.

He wouldn't name names, but he used the Kyle Busch/Kevin Harvick wreck at Homestead last season as an example.

"I couldn't sleep last night, and I was watching the Homestead race and remembering Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick wrecking each other – or however you want to look at it – and thinking to myself, 'I'm pretty sure Kyle didn't forget about that over the winter,'" he said. "And I've got my own ones I haven't forgotten about either. We don't forget, man."

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Joey Logano Prefers Paper To Typing On Computers

This is about the last thing you'd think would come out of 20-year-old Joey Logano's mouth: As fast as he is on the racetrack, he's not very fast with computers.

Because he types like a turtle, Logano would rather scribble his race setup notes on a piece of paper than type them on a computer.

"It's in a binder – I've got it somewhat organized now," he said. "I write down all my stuff, usually at the end of the day."

But wouldn't a computer be a better solution? That way, he could actually make sure the files are saved for posterity.

"It takes me too long to type," he said. "I'm not a good typer. So I said, 'The heck with it – I'll just write it down!'"

Well, whatever works. And it seems to be working for Logano, who is fast becoming a regular top-10 driver in the Sprint Cup Series.

Still, we can't help but wonder if someone should alert Mavis Beacon.

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Trevor Bayne Still Impressed By NASCAR Driver Phone Calls

When Trevor Bayne was in the process of switching race teams last season, his cell phone rang one day while he was home in Tennessee.

On the other end was Carl Edwards, who encouraged him to join Roush Fenway Racing and told the young Bayne the organization wanted to help his career.

Bayne hung up, secretly thrilled by the call, and his friends looked at him in amazement.

"My buddies at home are like, 'Dude, you were just on the phone with Carl Edwards?! What is that!?'" Bayne said with a wide grin. "I've just lost perspective because I'm in Mooresville a lot and around the shop, and I'm just used to it. But when you get outside of that (bubble), it's like, 'Wow, this is a big deal!'"

Bayne is planning to drive 17 Cup races for Wood Brothers Racing this season – though he could drive more if additional sponsorship is found.

He's been recognized throughout the garage as an up-and-comer in the sport – a rarity in the current climate who has worked his way up to Sprint Cup based on talent, not money.

Because of that, several top drivers have offered Bayne unsolicited advice behind the scenes – Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick among them.

"(Johnson) has always been out-of-his-way nice to me, which is something you wouldn't expect a five-time champion to do," Bayne said. "If I'm walking down pit road, even if I'm on the other side, he always comes to me.

"At Texas, I was standing there before qualifying and he was like, 'Hey, just keep your blinders on. Stay focused on your goals.' That's something he's incredible at – being able to block out everything. So I gotta take that advice and run with it."

Bayne drew Harvick's attention at the spring Dover Nationwide race last year. After a wreck in which Bayne hurt his foot, Harvick asked to speak with the young driver.

"Kevin Harvick, believe it or not, has played an instrumental role," Bayne said. "A lot of younger guys think he pushes them around, but for some reason, we've clicked.

"He called me over to his trailer at Dover and said, 'Man, I don't know what's going on, but I feel like I want to help you.'"

Harvick told Bayne not to race every lap like it was the last lap, and instead find a rhythm to pace himself throughout the races. Bayne said he took the advice to heart.

And though Bayne has made only one Cup start (he finished 17th in the fall race at Texas last season), the youngster is bursting with optimism for 2011.

"I would love to say we could be a competitive, top-15 team," he said. "I don't know that, because we haven't been on the track yet. But if it's anything like Texas, there's no doubt in my mind we can be a top-15 team every week."

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Jimmie Johnson Gets Early Jump On Daytona 500 Competition

The early slots at NASCAR's Daytona 500 media day are dreaded for most drivers, and they typically end up being assigned to some of the lesser-known names who don't get the first pick.

After all, who would want to show up at 8 a.m. to talk to a bunch of reporters?

So when Jimmie Johnson was the first driver to speak with the media on Thursday, the five-time Cup champ was asked what he did to deserve his early slot.

"I guess I got to blame myself, because I picked the time slot," Johnson said.

As it turns out, Johnson actually doesn't mind getting up early. Clearly, this is the conclusive proof that Johnson is not human but is actually some sort of robot/driving machine.

"It doesn't hurt being a morning person," he said. "I think it's helpful. I thought I was a morning person until I became a father – and now I find I'm officially a morning person."

Johnson said he used to be able to sleep in until 9 a.m. before daughter Genevieve was born last summer.

"Now, 9 is not an option any longer," he said.

Actually, Johnson added, he's always been that way. His father, Gary, worked in construction – a job that required him to get up early every day.

"I'd get up early and have breakfast with him and hang out before I went to school," Johnson said. "So it's always been in my wiring since I was a kid."

A couple interview booths over, 19-year-old Trevor Bayne was enthusiastic about being at Media Day but didn't share in Johnson's love of the early-morning hours.

"If I could sleep in until 12 every day, that would be the way I would have it," Bayne said with a laugh.

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2011 Daytona 500 Media Day Matchups Force Tough Choices

Life is full of difficult decisions, isn't it? Just look at NASCAR's Daytona 500 Media Day schedule as proof of that.

Since NASCAR has a huge list of drivers to come through the makeshift media center during the eight-hour marathon, no one can be everywhere at once. So reporters have to choose.

Let's start with the early-morning matchup: Five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Conway are both scheduled for 8 a.m.

How could anyone choose?

Kevin Harvick and Dave Blaney face off at 1:30 p.m. Which driver would you talk to?

Likewise, Juan Pablo Montoya is at risk of losing publicity today. His media time is scheduled for 10: 30 a.m. – the same time as both Joe Nemechek and Paul Menard.

Oh, the decisions!

All kidding aside, there actually are some instances where reporters have to make a serious pick.

Would you talk to Danica Patrick at 10:10 or defending Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray at 10:15?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne both go at 12:30; Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch are also all at the same time (2:30) as are Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin (3 p.m.)

Which drivers would you pick for interviews?

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Daytona 500 Buildup Begins With NASCAR Media Day

NASCAR's annual "Media Day" prior to the Daytona 500 is the surest sign the new racing season is about to start.

But for fans who just saw media coverage of the drivers at preseason Daytona testing, followed by the week-long preseason media tour in Charlotte, "NASCAR Media Day" seems a bit confusing. Didn't all the drivers just talk to the media a couple weeks ago?

Yes, they did. So if you're wondering what the difference is, let us try and explain.

The Daytona version of Media Day is unique, because NASCAR asks the drivers to knock out a bunch of media-related obligations all at once.

At Media Day, the drivers don't participate in a big press conference; rather, their time is divided up into a series of chores that serve to benefit various forms of media.

Each driver has roughly a three-and-a-half-hour window of responsibilities, expertly scheduled by NASCAR's public relations department. And it all happens in one massive white tent that sits just outside the Daytona International Speedway frontstretch grandstands.

In some order, the drivers will mark off the following before they can leave: A group interview with print reporters, sit-down interviews with ESPN and Speed, a red carpet-style series of interviews with local TV affiliates, a yearbook-style photo session for headshots and, finally, assorted obligations to MRN, PRN, NASCAR.com's live online stream – among others.

Separately from the Media Day schedule, many drivers will also go outside the tent to film commercial "bumps" for Fox and TNT (like the ones you see when the driver looks at the camera and crosses his arms, or acts silly to show viewers he's having a blast).

It's organized chaos in some ways, but NASCAR mostly has the timing down to a science and things run fairly smoothly. Of course, it's not always that way.

As you can imagine, the day wears down some of the drivers. Speaking from experience, several of the drivers' moods have gone downhill by the time they reach the print media (especially if they've done everything else first).

The grumpiest interview I can remember was in 2008, when Tony Stewart (who seems to despise Media Day) was more than 30 minutes late for his scheduled session. Stewart was in a foul mood by the time he reached reporters – and he wasn't the only one.

As you can guess, the interview didn't go very well.

That 2008 Media Day was notable for at least one other reason, too. The alternative version of the official Getty Images headshots that year used some sort of unflattering light and lens, and the results were a bit strange.

Artistic? Yes. Did the photos tell a story? Yes. But did the drivers look good? Not so much.

So before we begin with Media Day '11, let us not move on without first saluting these headshots from '08.

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