2012 NASCAR Preseason Media Tour: Cleaning Out The Notebook

The NASCAR Sprint Media Tour may be over, but we've got plenty more stories to share with you.

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The Eight Most Interesting Things Dale Earnhardt Jr. Said During The NASCAR Media Tour

During the Hendrick Motorsports stop on the recently completed NASCAR Sprint Media tour, Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat at his assigned station and fielded questions for roughly 45 minutes.

Print, internet and TV reporters cycled through, making queries on a variety of topics – and we had a tape recorder running the whole time.

After sifting through all the audio, here are the eight most interesting things Earnhardt Jr. said that day:

8. Thoughts on disappointing his fans:

I don't feel like I've delivered to my fans. But they've been really loyal and dedicated to our sport and to me as a driver, supporting me. This past year, we showed some signs of improvements and got people excited about this year. If we can keep it going, we can give the fans what they expect – and what they deserve.

7. On why he still has so many fans:

A lot of it has to do with my father – what he accomplished and the person he was. I gained a lot of fans from him. I've had a lot of years in the sport and I haven't ruined (the fan base) yet, so hopefully I'm doing something right when it comes to my personality and how I represent myself to the sport.

6. What he thinks of the new book In The Red, a story of his 2001 season written by ex-publicist Jade Gurss:

I read about half of it. I like the book, because you can tell he put a lot into it. But yeah, I kind of lived it, so the interest level for me is not there – because I've done it. It's something I already knew. So it's not as exciting as it would be for someone else.

But I wish him well and good success on it. I trust Jade. We worked well together in the Bud years, and had he crossed me in any way when writing that book, I would have given him my thoughts about it. But I thought he did a good job.

5. Why he thinks Danica Patrick gets so much attention:

She's a woman. She's got a great personality. She's got a dynamic edge to her personality. She's assertive and determined – and that's exciting. Especially coming from a woman in this sport, that's rare – very rare.

So it's very intriguing and interesting to people, I think. I think everyone – and more people than want to admit – want to see her do well, want to see her succeed. Because they want to see what the results of that are.

4. How working with detail-oriented crew chief Steve Letarte has changed his habits:

As soon as I got in the (team hauler) in the morning, I never left until the day was over with. I never did that my entire career until (last) year. I always went back to the (motorhome) in between practices.

I don't think (not doing it before) held me back; I don't think I realized my full potential. You know, I think he made me understand how those things I thought were trivial were important to him to help him do his job.

He wanted me (at the car) early. I was grumbling about it at first, but he was like, 'Man, that's the deal.' I understood once we got to doing it. And I found that place to be enjoyable and wanted to be there.

I told him this offseason, 'I worry you're going to relax a little on that, the more we're together, the more we become friends, that you might let me off the hook.' And I don't want that to happen.

3. On why he supported DEI moving ex-crew chief Tony Eury Sr. to a management role in 2005:

I was just ignorant, man, just naïve. I didn't realize what I had. I had a great team around me, had a great leader. I thought I knew more than everybody else around me and I didn't.

We had won a lot of races and did really well. So for whatever reason, we split up and I feel like I had a lot of responsibility in that decision and I regret doing that because he was good.

2. Thoughts on being popular:

It is kind of weird, being popular. I never was popular in high school all those years. It's kind of the complete opposite (now). Even being Dale Earnhardt's son wasn't a popular thing – you'd think it would be.

It's something I'm still overwhelmed with and still not used to and still uncomfortable with at times. The fans are great, they're loyal – I love what they bring to the sport, whether they're fans of mine or not. I'm a fan, too.

1. On pranking his mom, Brenda Jackson:

When I lived on the lake, I had this boat. And I kept the boat at (my mom's) house. Martin Truex gave me a name for the fishing boat – and it was all one word, called 'SHESAHOOKER.'

We named it that because it was risqué and my mom would be embarrassed and her friends would ask why she named her boat that. And she'd have to explain that.

I drove her crazy with that. But she's a bit of a smart alec, and I appreciate that quality in her.


Brad Keselowski: In NASCAR, Four-Car Teams Are A Myth

Brad Keselowski was asked during last week's NASCAR Sprint Media Tour whether he felt Penske Racing's two-car team was at any disadvantage to the larger three- and four-car teams.

Here's Keselowski's response, which we found pretty interesting:

There are no four-car teams in NASCAR. There aren't. There are a lot of two-car teams, a couple one-car teams and some pairings of two-car teams. But there are no four-car teams.

Just look at Hendrick. You go there, and there are two separate shops (one for the Nos. 5/24 and one for the Nos. 48/88). Now, they might have the car produced by the same shop off-site, but there are no four-car teams. It's not a successful model; it doesn't work.

Each team takes roughly 100 people to run it. You cannot get 400 people to work together. It doesn't happen. It's 400 cats running in all different directions.

It's a struggle in itself to get two teams to work together. And I feel zero competitive disadvantage to a four-car team. Zero. That doesn't make me nervous.

In reality, Hendrick Motorsports is now the only four-car team in NASCAR (since Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing both cut one team in the offseason).

But that doesn't change the gist of Keselowski's argument: That big multi-car teams aren't necessarily better than small multi-car teams.

Is that true? Keselowski obviously feels that way, but others might argue the biggest teams have access to more information (such as Hendrick's alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing) and therefore do have advantage.

Still, Keselowski does raise an interesting point, and it's one that might change the way you think about multi-car teams.


NASCAR Crew Chief Steve Addington Reveals Secret Of Thick Skin

Steve Addington speaks softly and smiles often, but he's far from the sensitive type. In fact, the new crew chief for Tony Stewart might just have the thickest skin in NASCAR.

Who else could go from being yelled at by Kyle Busch to being excoriated by Kurt Busch to signing up to be a potential punching bag for Stewart?

It seems Addington is one tough dude. So how does he do it?

"It's just my personality to not let it bother me that much," Addington said last week. "... I just keep my emotions in check and then deal with it the way I deal with it."

Addington became Kyle Busch's crew chief when the driver joined Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, and the pairing resulted in eight wins in their first season together.

But though Busch has calmed significantly on the radio, he wasn't particularly civil during some of his bad days while Addington was atop the pit box.

And so, after being fired by JGR in late 2009, it raised eyebrows when Addington joined Kurt Busch's team at Penske Racing.

Was this guy a glutton for punishment, or what?

Over the next couple seasons, Addington was on the receiving end of many a Kurt Busch rant, and both crew chief and driver left Penske when the year was through.

Now, Addington takes over for the fired Darian Grubb at Stewart-Haas – a gig Stewart described as "a vacation" compared to what the crew chief dealt with during his Busch Brothers days.

But Addington, who said fights with his older brother toughened him up as a youth, said, "Tony is going to have his moments, there's no doubt about it."

So why would Addington want to keep working with drivers who seem so difficult?

Because perception is not always reality, the crew chief said.

"I have respect for what they do in that race car – no matter what comes across that radio," Addington said. "What happens on Monday through Thursday in a relationship between a crew chief and a driver, that's where you get the comfort level – not necessarily always what you guys hear across the radio."

Still, that doesn't explain how Addington shows so much restraint. A reporter asked how Addington stops himself from fighting back when emotions get heated.

"If he pissed you off right now," Addington said, gesturing to another reporter, "would you be able to take him and jerk him down to the floor and do what you'd want to do?"

Clearly, the answer was no.

"You've just got to know how to handle things," Addington said, "and I pride myself on that,"

Busch bash?

Kurt Busch still calls Addington regularly, and the crew chief said he's helped Busch with the transition to Phoenix Racing. When Busch has a question about what steering box ratio he preferred at Penske, for example, Addington supplies the information.

The two did not part ways with any animosity toward one another, Addington said.

"I've got a lot of respect for him, and he said a lot of the right things when it was just a one-on-one conversation with him and myself," Addington said. "He needed to take a step back, get his act together and come back strong."

On that note, Addington said the idea he was leaving Penske to get away from Busch wasn't true. Rather, he said it was more about a desire to team with Stewart.

Stewart-Haas first contacted Addington about becoming a crew chief for the team after he was fired from JGR. At the time, SHR was trying to get funding to put together a third team – and Stewart wanted Addington to be its crew chief.

But the expansion plans eventually fell through and, as Addington put it, "I had to go get a job."

That job was Busch's crew chief at Penske Racing. But last fall, when Addington learned Grubb was being fired from SHR after the season, he realized there was suddenly another opportunity to team with Stewart.

Addington was admittedly nervous, though, when Stewart won the championship with Grubb. Would Stewart change his mind about hiring Addington and retain Grubb?

The 47-year-old lay in bed after getting home from the season finale – a race in which Busch's damaged car had jeopardized Stewart's title hopes – wondering if perhaps it wouldn't work out after all.

But Addington's phone buzzed at 2:30 a.m. with an incoming text message. It was from Stewart.

"No pressure, bud," the text read.

Addington believes he can pick up right where Stewart and Grubb left off, but also help Stewart find the consistency he was seeking when the decision was made to part ways with Grubb.

"I'm looking forward to having great communication with the driver and having a driver that's willing to work with us through thick and thin to make the car better," Addington said. "I think we'll just get better as the year goes on."


David Ragan Relieved, Optimistic About New NASCAR Ride At Front Row Motorsports

I have a buddy – an unemployed buddy – who keeps going on job interviews and is repeatedly told he's a "finalist" for various positions. But when it comes time for companies to make the actual hire, my friend keeps getting passed up and, thus, is still jobless.

For much of the offseason, David Ragan seemed to find himself in that same position. Ragan's No. 6 team at Roush Fenway Racing effectively folded due to lack of sponsorship after the season was over, and Roush didn't have any other gigs for Ragan.

Heck, who did have an available ride? Unless a driver was attached to sponsorship dollars, teams didn't seem to be hiring.

"Yeah, I was a little nervous," Ragan said last week. "Obviously, knowing there are good drivers out there on the market...you're like, 'Man, I need to get my ducks in a row.'"

But shortly into December, the Georgia native was mentioned as the leading candidate to replace Kurt Busch in Penske Racing's No. 22 car, and it seemed everything would work out for the better.

Penske bucked the conventional wisdom, though, and AJ Allmendinger got the job instead.

Ragan was subsequently passed over for Phoenix Racing's No. 51 car (Busch's new ride), Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 43 car (Aric Almirola), and even JR Motorsports' No. 88 car (Cole Whitt).

As more and more of Silly Season's musical chairs were filled, it seemed Ragan could be left without a seat for the 2012 campaign.

Fortunately for him, Front Row Motorsports owner Bob Jenkins was interested in acquiring Ragan's services. And so it came to be that Ragan will drive the team's No. 34 car this season, teaming with David Gilliland.

"It's been fun so far," Ragan said sincerely. "Ultimately, we know there are going to be some challenges along the way. We're not going to be able to unload at Texas and be the first car on the speed charts after the first lap. But we've got some goals, and I think there's a lot of potential there."

Last year, as his future at Roush became questionable, Ragan repeatedly vowed to not accept a Sprint Cup Series ride "just to say I'm a Cup driver."

"I had said from Day 1, I was not going to start-and-park a Sprint Cup car," he said. "I would even run an ARCA car before I would start-and-park. If I'm going to make a living, I'll move back home and be a peanut farmer and sell Ford trucks.

"I'm doing this because it's a competition, I want to grow as a driver and ultimately be a race winner."

Front Row Motorsports, Ragan believes, is a chance to help a team take the next step in its development while also growing as a driver.

"Just being 26 years old, I've still got a lot to learn," he said. "I think a year doing this – or maybe even a couple years doing this – will make me a smarter driver and a better driver down the road."

So why Front Row? Ragan – unfailingly polite and sponsor-friendly, but with a sharp sense of humor – said he had a couple options on the table. Ultimately, though, he was swayed by team owner Bob Jenkins' enthusiasm for racing.

Jenkins, who owns many of the A&W, Taco Bell and Long John Silver's restaurants in the southeast, told Ragan he has put much of his personal money into the team and was committed to building the organization.

"If we get some sponsorship, I'm not going to put it in my pocket," Jenkins told Ragan. "We're going to get an R&D team, get some wind tunnel time."

Ragan was impressed at how far the team had come in just a few seasons of existence and how it's lasted through some tough times – unlike some of the organizations that make an initial splash and fade away.

"It's become a pretty good team in short amount of time with not a lot of money," Ragan said. "... I thought, 'Man, this guy has done a nice job. He's been smart; he hasn't been stupid with his money like some of these other teams have. I could see there was something material there to work with."

So what will the team do with Ragan in one of its cars? The driver said there were "realistic expectations" – which don't include the Chase.

But there will be some chances to win a race, Ragan insisted, starting with the Daytona 500.

"Our goals are realistic," he said. "We need to be in the mid-20s in points. That would be an improvement over what they had last year. We need to be a top-25 team."

Is that possible? The No. 34 car finished 31st in owner points last season; the No. 38 car was 35th.

But Ragan believes if the team avoids trouble and finds some consistency, he can help Front Row take the next step in its development.

"I think they've got a lot of the right parts of the puzzle," he said. "It's just a matter of getting them aligned right."


Kyle Busch Still Wants 200 NASCAR Wins Despite Reduced Schedule

Kyle Busch has long said he wants to reach 200 NASCAR national series victories before he retires – a goal that will become more challenging since the driver has cut back his racing schedule for 2012.

Busch will not race in the Camping World Truck Series this season after driving in 16 events last year – and winning six of them – and will reduce his Nationwide Series schedule by a handful of races (from 20 to approximately 15).

So with fewer opportunities to collect trophies, can Busch still reach 200 victories?

"There's no telling," he said last week during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour. "I wish we could win eight races a year in Cup and eight races a year in Nationwide. That's 16 races a year, and that's not bad. Granted, you could probably win five or six truck races a year and that puts you at 21 or 22 races a year, but the focal point now...needs to be on the Cup deal and trying to win a championship there."

Busch currently has 104 wins across NASCAR's top three series – 23 in Sprint Cup, 51 in Nationwide and 30 in Trucks. He's 26 years old, so if he averaged 6.8 wins per season (modest by his standards) and raced until he was 40, he would still be able to reach his goal.

"I still want the 200 wins someday," he said.

Though Busch has avoided comparisons to Richard Petty's 200 Cup wins, 200 national series victories in the modern era could at least be mentioned in the same breath. Petty won some of his Cup races by entering mid-week events against competition that might be comparable to what the Truck or Nationwide Series is today.

Joe Gibbs Racing asked Busch to reduce his schedule this year because it wants him to avoid distractions and focus on Sprint Cup Series racing – particularly after last fall's Texas incident in which Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday and got suspended.

He'll still be in the Nationwide Series – Busch will split a ride at Kyle Busch Motorsports with his brother, Kurt – but the Truck races will certainly have a different look without the driver they call "Rowdy."

"I'm definitely going to miss it," he said. "I love it. ... I've had a great time running over there and racing against these competitors and winning. ... Unfortunately, I'm going to take a step back and not do it this season to allow Kyle Busch Motorsports to develop into something that can sustain itself without me being the driver."

Jason Leffler will drive KBM's entry in the Truck Series this year, though the team is still seeking funding for a full season.

Busch pointed out his participation in the Truck races was always just for fun.

"Truthfully, I don't have to run truck races," he said. "My fans love it, and I love racing truck races for them."


NASCAR: We Want To Be At Short Tracks As Much As Fans Do

This season, for the first time since 1982, NASCAR will not hold a race at Indiana's Lucas Oil Raceway (the track formerly known as Indianapolis Raceway Park).

LOR, a short track which often provided some of the best racing of the season in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series, joins a list that includes Memphis, Nashville, Gateway, Milwaukee, Mansfield and Pike's Peak as "standalone" venues which have disappeared from the NASCAR calendar over the past few years.

The disappearance of short tracks is alarming to NASCAR traditionalists and has led to questions as to whether NASCAR's sanctioning fees are too high for standalone venues that don't host a lucrative Sprint Cup Series race.

But Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president of racing operations, said NASCAR has taken steps to make hosting races more affordable over the last couple years.

"We'd like to return to every track, every year," he said Thursday. "We love the short tracks, and we know the fans do as well."

O'Donnell said NASCAR cut purses in the Nationwide Series by more than 20 percent (meaning the tracks had to pay out less money) and also reduced purses in the Camping World Truck Series – which O'Donnell said has had a "huge impact" on teams in both series.

And while the purses were cut, O'Donnell said the sanctioning fees did not rise – meaning tracks theoretically had more of a chance to turn a profit (tracks pay NASCAR for the right to host races).

"We'd still like to be at (LOR)," O'Donnell said. "So when the fans look at it and say, 'Boy, NASCAR, why aren't you there? You're leaving those tracks,' most of the time...we were ready to go back and it just didn't work out for the track."

O'Donnell said NASCAR is considering some "different short-track purse models" that would feature shorter races and thus make hosting events more affordable for tracks like LOR or Gresham Motorsports Park in Georgia (NASCAR determines sanctioning fees based in part on the length of the race).

NASCAR's return to Rockingham in the Truck Series this season is evidence the sanctioning body listens to fan concerns about the disappearance of traditional venues and short tracks, O'Donnell said.

"I can tell you it's not from a lack of wanting to be there," he said. "Rockingham this year, coming back, is going to be a huge thing for us. And candidly, we're going to need the fans to turn out.

"The fans have all been very vocal about wanting to go back there; we want to go back there. But if we show up and it's a challenge (with attendance), we know what happens. So we're going to ask for full support for that race, and we hope to be back every year at Rockingham and return to some of those short tracks that are out there."

As for expanding NASCAR's horizons beyond existing venues? O'Donnell said NASCAR would like to be in as many different markets as possible, but it's not as easy as it sounds.

Getting government support to build a new track is the primary obstacle in expansion, he said.

O'Donnell praised the strength of the fan bases in Minneapolis, Seattle and Denver, and said NASCAR would like to be in those areas if possible.

But there's no imminent expansion, he added.

"The last thing we'd want to end up doing is pulling a date from someplace the fans say is a traditional date and going to a new market," he said. "So it's got to be a win-win. We'll evaluate it as we go. Is there anything on the immediate horizon? No."


2012 NASCAR Media Tour Wrap-Up: What We Learned

When a driver's wife getting pregnant is the biggest revelation of a four-day press event, you know there wasn't much news.

Kevin Harvick's surprise announcement Wednesday night that he and wife DeLana are expecting their first child in July was the top news on the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour, which concluded Thursday afternoon.

Other stories included Danica Patrick's announcement she would not be participating in this year's Indianapolis 500 and Elliott Sadler's entry into the Daytona 500 with Richard Childress Racing.

Aside from that, there wasn't much to report. In this case, though, no news is good news for NASCAR.

At NASCAR's Thursday tour stop, there were no announcements made about rules changes or new programs. After what was perhaps stock car racing's greatest season ever, there was no need to change anything.

The points system will stay the same. The Chase will stay the same. The on-track rules will remain the same.

Honestly, that's the right call. Making any adjustments after such a fantastic season would risk jeopardizing NASCAR's current momentum, which is finally headed in a positive direction again after several disappointing seasons.

There were no "Be more positive!" lectures to the media this year – perhaps for the first time since the sport's bubble burst in 2006. And several key figures – from Brian France to Brad Keselowski – actually thanked reporters for covering the sport.

Clearly, this is a kinder, gentler NASCAR. Mike Helton said officials are more open-minded than ever now, listening to fan and team suggestions and implementing many of them.

For example: NASCAR's Fan Council told officials they didn't like the two-car drafts at restrictor-plate tracks. So instead of trying to spin the tandem racing as a positive and shoving it down everyone's throat, NASCAR shrugged and said, "OK, fine. We'll fix it."

The overall spin declined in general. I got the sense at many tour stops that teams were actually excited – instead of just going through the motions – and multiple team owners reported an improvement in the economic and sponsorship climate for their teams.

That said, NASCAR still lost several race teams and major companies – so it remains to be seen whether the sport is really getting financially healthy again.

Reporters didn't quite get a complete picture of the upcoming season, though, as two of the biggest potential stories of the 2012 season were no-shows.

Preseason favorite Carl Edwards had a miscommunication of some sort and took a vacation during the Media Tour, missing the Roush Fenway Racing stop. And jury duty kept Kasey Kahne away from his media duties on Wednesday, denying reporters the chance to ask about his move to Hendrick Motorsports.

Matt Kenseth (family emergency) and Richard Childress (fishing trip) were also missing, marking a rare string of absences.

Nevertheless, there was still much to talk about. After all, the 2012 NASCAR season has potential to be even better than 2011.

The Daytona 500 may be the most-hyped "Great American Race" yet – since it also marks Danica Patrick's Sprint Cup Series debut – Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks poised to end his long winless drought, and the championship battle seems wide open.

How will Kurt Busch fare at Phoenix Racing – and in teaming up with his brother in the Nationwide Series? Can Jimmie Johnson shake off a disappointing season (by his standards) and win Cup No. 6? Will Stewart be able to defend his title with new crew chief Steve Addington, or will his performance slip? How will the variety of new driver/team/crew chief combinations work out?

There's tons to talk about and anticipate this season. But the hype has to build for a few more weeks first, like a teapot coming to a slow boil.

We're not done yet! Keep checking back here for more updates from the Media Tour (there's a lot of tape to transcribe).


NASCAR Media Tour Notebook: Kevin And DeLana Harvick Expecting First Child

Here are a few notes from the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour we haven't talked about yet:

• Kevin Harvick's wife, DeLana is 14 weeks pregnant and expecting the couple's first child in July, the driver told reporters at the Richard Childress Racing stop on Wednesday night.

• Elliott Sadler will run the Daytona 500 in RCR's No. 33 car with sponsorship from General Mills. Brendan Gaughan will then run the next four Cup races in the 33, which is locked in to each race thanks to owner points from Clint Bowyer's team last year.

• Rick Hendrick said Wednesday he will be "really disappointed" if all four Hendrick Motorsports cars don't make the Chase – and if one of them doesn't win the championship.

• Chip Ganassi ripped his team's performance on Tuesday, explaining the organization's offseason changes by saying the 2011 season was "pathetic" for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing.

• Trevor Bayne told reporters he was treated for Lyme disease last year, even though there was never a definitive diagnosis. Since the treatment was successful, he believes Lyme disease is what he had.

• Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will defend his Nationwide Series title with a full-season campaign. Bayne currently has enough sponsorship for a partial Nationwide season and Roush Fenway Racing is hoping he can run the complete schedule.

• Michael Waltrip is working on a deal that would allow him to race the Daytona 500, but he doesn't have sponsorship secured yet.

• Kentucky Speedway is spending $10 million to upgrade its infrastructure and increase the amount of available parking.


Scott Speed Gets Second NASCAR Chance At Leavine Family Racing

After being released from Red Bull in 2010, Scott Speed spent most of last season without a NASCAR ride. He mostly start-and-parked for Whitney Motorsports and Max Q Motorsports and figured he'd probably have to do the same in 2012.

But racing has a funny way of giving second chances sometimes, and Speed believes he may have found a team to help resurrect his career.

Speed will drive a partial Sprint Cup Series schedule for Leavine Family Racing this season, focusing mostly on the 1.5-mile tracks and road courses. Team owner Bob Leavine (pronounced "leh-VINE," not "leh-VEEN") was impressed with Speed's ability to out-qualify his car last season with inferior equipment and decided to give the ex-Formula One racer a shot.

The team plans to avoid start-and-parking if possible and run the full races it enters, beginning with the Texas Motor Speedway race in April.

"You can make more money doing (start-and-parks), for sure, but that's not what Bob wants to do," Speed said Tuesday night. "We want to be professional about it. We're going to look good, we're going to have all of our stuff right and represent our brand and what we're doing the right way and not just be another start-and-park team."

Leavine gets its engines from Roush Fenway Racing (on a lower tier) and buys used Roush cars to field its No. 95 entry (which David Starr drove last season).

"We're going about it the right way – as much as you can be," Speed said. "We're not a fully-funded team that's running a full year. But instead of doing a lot, we're doing what we can and doing it right. If we're running well, the pedal is to the floor."

Speed said running half-assed races for Whitney Motorsports last season was "the most frustrating thing I've ever had to do in my life." Now he's with a team that hopes to establish itself over the next couple seasons and eventually become a full-time team.

"We want to try to grow it and set ourselves apart from the other small start-and-park teams," he said. "We want to set ourselves as being professional, clean, looking nice and doing a good job on the weekends."

The team won't run the superspeedway races, because that requires buying a special car and hoping it survives a crapshoot race. But it will purchase a car for the road courses, Speed said, because those events are "probably more in our control."

With few rides available heading into the offseason, Speed said he felt "really, truly lucky" Leavine was interested in putting him in the seat.

"Last year, there was no way I thought I'd have such a good opportunity," he said.


Dale Earnhardt Jr. Issues Twitter Challenge To NASCAR Fans

Technology is a crazy thing, and so it came to be that during an interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Wednesday, we were interrupted by a live Facebook broadcast.

As it turned out, Hendrick Motorsports was live-streaming all of its Media Day activities right on its Facebook page. This included roving reporter Sean Pragano, who had a camera crew with him.

When Pragano approached, he began with a simple question: "Hello, @jeff_gluck. Are you trying to get Dale onto Twitter?"

I'm not too quick on my feet when it comes to TV stuff (that's why I'm a writer), but I managed to mutter, "That's impossible..."

Earnhardt Jr. kindly steered me in the direction of a sponsor plug – in this case for my employer – and said, "Yeah, but you're on SB...what's it called?"

"SB Nation," I said helpfully.

"Yeah, SB Nation," Earnhardt Jr. said.

Pragano told us more about the live Facebook broadcast and said he and those watching at home were going to listen in on some of our interview.

Again, Earnhardt Jr. came to the rescue.

"Well, you can't listen in," he told Pragano, "because then people won't go read the story."

That's exactly right! This is a business that relies on page views. I wanted to high-five the guy. But for some reason, I threw him under the bus instead.

"Facebook people, what can we do to get Dale Jr. on Twitter?" I asked, putting him on the spot.

"I'm not saying I'll never do it, but not today," he said. "Probably not tomorrow."

"You guys need to write in and tell him this: He doesn't have to do it every day," I said, then turned back to the driver. "Even if you did it once a week..."

"I know...I know!" he said with the tone of a dude being nagged by his wife.

"Maybe like one tweet?" Pragano said.

"No!" Earnhardt Jr. said. "Why one!?"

I sensed there was a small chance we could wear him down, so I kept going.

"Even Mark Martin joined this week," I said.

"That's good," Earnhardt Jr. said dismissively. "Good for him."

Maybe it was a lost cause after all. In fact, that was becoming pretty clear. And Earnhardt Jr. had been saying for the past few years that he has no interest in Twitter (Here's his reasoning in both 2010 and 2011).

Still, this was a live broadcast, and so I stood my ground in hopes of saving some face.

"Tweet me and let me know why Dale Jr. should join Twitter," I said into the camera.

Earnhardt Jr. seemed to realize the only way to end the conversation was to pretend as though there was a chance.

"Yeah, give Jeff some creative ideas on why I would enjoy it," he said. "That's what I want to know. Tell me that."

Aha! Momentum! I seized it.

"They could do a top 10 reasons why you should join Twitter," I said.

"No, not why I should join it," he said. "I've heard that a million times. But what would I like about it?"

"Oh. I don't know," I replied. "I don't think you would like it. I think they would like it."

He didn't like that logic.

"I want to enjoy it!" he said. "What the heck?!"

So there you have it. Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. become Twitter's @DaleJr? It's highly doubtful.

But perhaps you, dear readers, have better suggestions for what he'd like about it than I do. In case you do, leave them in the comments section below.

If we get enough good responses, I'll print out this page and try to pass it to the future @DaleJr at Daytona.


Photo: Danica Patrick Kisses Kenny Wallace During Family Feud Game

Nationwide had a cool idea for its NASCAR Media Tour stop on Tuesday night: In order for the media to get to know the drivers and their personalities a little better, why not make the press event fun?

Elliott Sadler hosted a David Letterman-style talk show (his guests were other drivers), complete with a funny top 10 list. Travis Pastrana performed a "Stupid Human Trick" (eating an entire raw egg). And five drivers took on a team of media members (including me) in a game of Family Feud.

The drivers kicked our team's ass in the Family Feud game, which was pretty embarrassing. The media team just couldn't seem to come up with the answers to survey questions polled from actual race fans (Example: Would you have guessed the No. 1 most-watched cable channel for female race fans was The Weather Channel? Or that swimming was NASCAR fans' favorite sport to participate in? Come on.).

Anyway, while the media team was struggling, host Kenny Wallace channeled Richard Dawson and asked our team captain – Jenna Fryer – for a kiss. He suggested that would change our luck around.

Fryer refused to put out, but Danica Patrick – who was on the drivers' team – volunteered.

"I'll give you a kiss!" she said.

Wallace quickly accepted, and here's the result:



Mark Martin: How NASCAR Drivers Should Handle Their 'Bidness'

Surprisingly, Mark Martin said he hasn't been asked for his advice too much lately when it comes to teaching young drivers about the etiquette of racing and how to handle conflicts.

But if one of them did ask, the new Michael Waltrip Racing driver told reporters during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour what his response would be.

"The best thing to do is if you have problems, you need to talk about it – not to the TV cameras, to the person," he said.

Told that wasn't much fun for the media, Martin nodded and said, "I know it."

"That's how a man handles his bidness, though!" he added, letting his Arkansas accent shine through.

Martin was once known as NASCAR's cleanest and most respectful racer, but last year he began to change his style. At one point, he seemed fed up and intentionally wrecked former pupil Regan Smith.

After the Smith incident, Martin said the current state of racing "requires less sportsmanship, more 'me.'" On Monday, the veteran racer was asked if give-and-take racing is dead.

"It's leaning that way," he said. "Give-and-take still exists, but it has to be with the right guy and it has to be at the right time. There's a lot less of it than there used to be."

Martin noted that the top 35 cars now are all basically running the same speed. Until recently, the field wasn't so even.

"Back in the day, they were two seconds apart and there wasn't much you could do about it if you were one of the ones that was two seconds off," he said. "You could fight it, but it wouldn't do you much good. Now, it does."

As a result, Martin said "the code" of racing has changed.

"The line has to be so hard right now," he said. "Passing is so difficult when you have cars all close to the same speed that you've got to fight tooth-and-nail for everything."


Martin Truex Jr. Hopes To Re-Sign With Michael Waltrip Racing

Martin Truex Jr. knows it will take a trip to Victory Lane in order to keep sponsor Napa – and perhaps in order to keep his job at Michael Waltrip Racing.

Truex enters the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season faced with increased pressure to perform, in perhaps a now-or-never situation with a contract that expires at the end of the year.

He wants to stay at MWR – hopefully with Napa sponsorship – and he's up for the challenge to prove he deserves the ride.

"I'm not here to float along and hang around if I'm not competitive," Truex said Monday night. "I know what I can do in a race car. Michael knows what I can do in a race car, and everybody here knows what I can do in a race car. And that's all that matters to me.

"This year is obviously very, very important with Napa – keeping them happy and hopefully keeping them here. For now, it's just about getting it done. We can do it. There's no doubt in my mind."

Truex pointed to the last five races of 2011 as evidence he and his team are capable of running up front and winning races. He had four top-10 finishes in the final five events, which coincided with a change in how MWR built its cars.

Now, with MWR on the same tier as Joe Gibbs Racing in the eyes of Toyota, Truex believes the improvement will only continue.

"If we can perform as well as we did the last six or seven races of the year, there will be no question (about re-signing)," he said. "Our goals are obviously to do that right out of the box. I know my team is capable of winning races and making the Chase, and if we don't do that, I'm not going to be happy, either. So it doesn't really matter what else happens."

Truex made the Chase in 2007 while driving at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and also won his only career Cup race that season. The two-time Nationwide Series champ figured he'd be a perennial contender. But that hasn't happened.

DEI nearly fell apart in 2008, then merged with Chip Ganassi Racing. His 2009 season with Earnhardt-Ganassi wasn't good, and he left for greener pastures at MWR.

But it's taken longer to get up to speed at MWR than he anticipated, Truex said.

Still, Truex said he's never doubted his ability because he knows what he's capable of doing in a race car and believes in himself. He's improved since making the Chase, he said – not regressed.

"I'm a better driver than in 2007 by leaps and bounds," he said. "You can ask anyone who's ever been around me since then. ... There's a lot of lessons you can't learn unless you have a tough year or things aren't going good. I've learned a lot of those. Hopefully, I can put them all to good use."

Truex refused to call 2012 a "make-or-break season" because, he said, every season is that way. There's always pressure to perform, always expectations.

But the 31-year-old driver acknowledged this season is crucial in deciding the future for both himself and MWR.

"I mean, I want to be here next year," he said. "We both have to wait and see how all that goes. But I feel good about this year. I really do. Time will tell."


'NASCAR On FOX' Wants To Air Side-By-Side Commercials If Advertisers Are Game

Side-by-side commercials are continuing to gain momentum in the NASCAR TV world.

NASCAR on FOX is "absolutely" interested in expanding the amount of time it airs side-by-side commercials with live action coverage during a race, lead race producer Barry Landis said Monday night.

"We talk about it all the time," he said. "To what degree? ... We're working on the economics on the sales side, but we hope to do it more this year, for sure."

Landis said he's a race fan and understands why NASCAR fans don't like it when TV networks cut away from green-flag action to show commercials.

But at the same time, he said advertisers "want to see that people are paying attention to their product." If FOX can convince more advertisers to get on board with the side-by-side concept, that type of coverage can expand.

"We hope to be able to continue to choose our spots, get our sponsors in line and really give the fans what they want," Landis said. "We've got the best sales force I've ever seen. They know. They're out there working it. Hopefully, people will get interested and see the value and say, 'Absolutely. That's great.'"

Side-by-side commercials are when a TV network continues to show the race in a small box while airing ads – thus allowing the viewer to keep an eye on the race action.

Last season, FOX decided to use side-by-side for the final 30 laps at Dover, Charlotte and Kansas. Landis said being able to do so was "awesome."

ESPN then expanded the concept, going to side-by-side for the last half of each Chase race. Perhaps by coincidence, TV ratings increased for the Chase.

So what can fans do to let advertisers know they want more side-by-side ads? Landis is on board with the idea of using social media to praise those sponsors who choose to share the screen with the race.

"Tweet away! Go, go!" he said. "That'd be great."


Denny Hamlin: Joe Gibbs Racing Needed To Get 'Ass Kicked' To Realize Changes Were Needed

Denny Hamlin grew frustrated with the organizational structure at Joe Gibbs Racing last season because he felt former crew chief Mike Ford "had his hands tied" and couldn't make the changes Hamlin wanted.

That revelation was part of yet another honest Hamlin interview session, this one coming during Monday's NASCAR Sprint Media Tour.

Hamlin said the arrival of new crew chief Darian Grubb has helped open up JGR's departments to new ideas and a fresh approach.

"We're going to go to the racetrack with completely different race cars," he said. "I can't get a lot in depth with it, but some of the things we're building in our race cars are some of the things I've wanted for a long time – but it's been hard to get past the departments here and there."

So why is JGR open to Hamlin's suggestions now when it wasn't before?

"I think you need a season of getting your ass kicked for people to wake up and realize that maybe we're not as good as what we thought we were," he said. "At JGR, we got our tails kicked. Kyle (Busch) won four races, but when the Chase started, we all stunk."

Team president J.D. Gibbs said he didn't agree with all of what Hamlin said, but acknowledged it was a rough season for both the No. 11 team and the organization as a whole.

"Some of the stuff he was going through, we weren't doing a good job with," Gibbs said.

Hamlin said he's more energized than ever before heading into the 2012 season and believes he'll be better than ever once he and Grubb get through a transition period. Grubb's former driver, Tony Stewart, recommended Hamlin hire the crew chief because "he'd be perfect for you," Hamlin said.

The lessons from 2011, though, are ones Hamlin is not eager to forget. He nearly won the championship in 2010, but then had the most disappointing season of his career last year.

"You work harder when you get beat up – not only the team, but the driver," Hamlin said. "When your cars aren't as good, that forces you as a driver to make up for it. You've got to get better. ... And I realized those weaknesses that I had last year."

The seventh-year driver said morale was high at the race shop once again and noted every department "seems to be working harder."

But he also had praise for former crew chief Ford, who hasn't found a job after being fired from JGR.

"I'm shaking my head and scratching my head every day as to why this guy has not got a crew chief right now," Hamlin said. "This guy is a winner. At times, he had his hands tied – and I knew that. That's why I didn't have very much confidence last year. I knew what I felt like we needed to improve on, and he (knew) – but we couldn't get that done."


Kyle Busch Wishes NASCAR Texas Incident Never Happened, Understands Need For Change

If Kyle Busch could take back his intentional wreck of Ron Hornaday at November's Camping World Truck Series race at Texas, he would do so without hesitation.

"I would have liked that it never have happened," Busch said Monday during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour. "If I could, I would take it back."

The reality, though, is that Busch can't reverse his actions – nor erase the post-incident fallout.

NASCAR suspended him for the rest of the Texas weekend and M&M's, the primary sponsor for his Sprint Cup Series ride at Joe Gibbs Racing, pulled its name off the car for the final two events of the season.

Busch said everything that happened afterward was "certainly a little more than I expected" but now realizes how much his actions affect the people around him.

"It's not necessarily affecting me," he said. "It affects (public relations rep) Bill Janitz here. It affects Joe and J.D. Gibbs. It affects Dave Rogers, my whole team, the Joe Gibbs Racing organization, Kyle Busch Motorsports and the people behind the brands, too."

Busch wouldn't discuss his offseason conversations with M&M's ("It's none of your business," he told reporters), but said everything has been positive.

"I'll tell you what – I didn't have much work to do with the people that were closest to me," he said. "Those people are the utmost supportive of me and who I am and (wife) Samantha and our relationship. You kind of have a family-type relationship with those folks and they know who you are as a person."

Busch compared his own actions to that of a kid who gets in trouble at school or gets thrown out of a baseball game.

"You're disappointed in their reaction, but you still love them and stick up behind them and try to help them through that," he said.

If there are any restrictions or ultimatums imposed on Busch by his sponsor, he wasn't saying. But Busch did say he didn't feel handcuffed by M&M's and would still be able to race how he wanted.

He also understands, though, that he can't cross the line.

"I've got fans all the time that tell me they don't want to see me change," he said. "I've tried to keep that, but ultimately, it's not going to work. If you keep getting in trouble, you're not going to be here very long. I'm trying to change something."


How Long Will Tony Stewart's Honeymoon With NASCAR Media Last?

As Tony Stewart's season suddenly turned around during last season's Chase for the Sprint Cup, so did his relationship with the media.

Stewart went from lashing out at reporters prior to NASCAR's Chase cutoff at Richmond to being both accessible and friendly by season's end.

Certainly, that coincided with his on-track revival. Winning five races in 10 weeks has a tendency to make a man happy, as does a championship.

But with a new season beginning, how long will Stewart's positive relationship with the media last? Which Tony Stewart will reporters see this year?

"You should be able to tell the honeymoon is still on, because we provided food for you guys," Stewart said after reporters stuffed themselves with lunch at the first stop on the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour. "No, I think things are alright. I mean, it's like anything else – when you're passionate about what you do, it's easy for people to get under your collar.

"But we're still sitting here starting this year off on a good note."

There's a chance the momentum from 2011 could carry over to 2012, even with Stewart changing crew chiefs in the offseason. Does Stewart consider himself the favorite to win the championship again?

"I'll be honest, I never even worry about it at the beginning of the year," he said. "I think our season last year is proof that you're throwing darts at a dartboard right now if you're trying to predict who's going to win the championship this early. ... I don't think you could predict anybody right now."


Danica Patrick Won't Race Indianapolis 500 In 2012

Danica Patrick's 10-race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule for this season will include the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day Weekend.

That means for the first time since Patrick came into the national spotlight, the Indianapolis 500 won't include the GoDaddy Girl.

Patrick said Monday on the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour she will not be a part of the Indy 500 this year and won't attempt the "double" (racing 1,100 miles at Indy and Charlotte on the same day).

"I hope to do the Indy 500 in the future – maybe even a double," she said. "... It was something on the business side that just didn't work out."

Patrick is running a full schedule in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this year, but also has 10 Sprint Cup races. She will make her Cup debut in next month's Daytona 500.

Her complete Sprint Cup schedule has yet to be announced, but it includes some of the circuit's toughest tracks – at the request of Stewart-Haas Racing team owner Tony Stewart – in order to prepare for running all 36 races in 2013.

Patrick's 10-race Cup schedule also includes Darlington and the Bristol night race.

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