Drivers dish before the Daytona 500

Hot topics at Media Day heading into Speedweeks.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There’s always an air of ‘excitement’ on the first day of Speedweeks.

And for the drivers that aren’t feeling the anticipation of a new season, most do an admirable job of faking it.

On Thursday, several themes permeated NASCAR Media Day for the Daytona 500. Jeff Gordon’s retirement from full-time competition – as well as his influence on the sport – topped the conversation. His peers were asked a variety of question focusing on the four-time Cup champion’s 22 seasons on NASCAR’s top tour, and plenty of solid responses followed.

Current Cup champion Kevin Harvick said Gordon literally changed the face of the sport which enabled NASCAR and the teams to monetize sponsorship differently.

“When you look at this sport, the way that it's shaped, Dale Earnhardt, in my opinion, would have never been what he was towards the end of his career if Jeff Gordon hadn't come into the sport,” Harvick said. “Because when you look at the Fortune 500 companies and the things that it brought to Earnhardt because of the attention that Jeff Gordon brought to the sport, it took Earnhardt to another level. 

“You had all those new fans that didn't really like Earnhardt.  And then you had the old school fans and the old ‑‑ and then you had a brand like Goodwrench and you had a brand like Wrangler that were like the good old boy brands that wanted to get into that marketing more with the new wave and new era.

“Earnhardt was a huge part of the sport.  But if you look at the end of the late '90s, early 2000 up until 2001, if you look at the leap that Earnhardt's career took and the ‑‑ his wealth and the sponsors and the things that he had, a lot of that, in my opinion, had to do with Jeff Gordon.”

Back to the drawing board

If you missed the new qualify procedures for the Daytona 500, here’s the Reader’s Digest version. There will be two sets of time trials with the top 24 from the first round advancing to the second round. The drivers with the top two times in the final round are locked in on the front row for the 500. Positions third through 32nd are established through the Duel qualifying races next Thursday. Spots 33 through 36 are held for the four fastest qualifiers from either round followed by seven provisional positions including the 43rd starting spot held for a past champion if necessary.

With so much on the line, the overwhelming opinion is too much is left to chance with this format. Simply put, Kyle Busch called the procedure “horrible”. “I don’t like it whatsoever,” Busch added. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

After this system was introduced at Talladega in the fall, Jeff Gordon was forced to take a provisional and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. missed the show.

I don’t think anybody was really worried about it until the fiasco at Talladega.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

“I am definitely worried about qualifying,” Stenhouse said on Thursday. “I don’t think anybody was really worried about it until the fiasco at Talladega.”

No excuses

Several drivers that missed the mark last year were asked about 2015 comebacks. Tony Stewart, who finished 25th (but ahead of Danica Patrick) despite missing three races, made it clear that his sub-par season had nothing to do with the injuries sustained in his 2013 sprint car wreck.

Everybody wanted to blame it on the injury last year, and that didn't have anything to do with it when it came time to drive the car.

Tony Stewart

“I mean, not 100 percent leg‑wise, but in the car I'm fine,” Stewart said. “I felt fine last year.  Everybody wanted to blame it on the injury last year, and that didn't have anything to do with it when it came time to drive the car.  We are in better shape than we were last year.”

I am third

Brad Keselowski once claimed to be a B+ student with potential. Certainly, after winning a title and racking up six win last season, Keselowski isn’t nearly as modest. Entering 2015, the Team Penske racer feels like “a top-three driver in the Sprint Cup Series.”

“I feel really good about my position week to week based on whether it is the track or rules changes I feel like I can be either the best driver or all the way back to a tenth place driver,” Keselowski said. “I personally think just from watching, and I am not afraid to say it, that Carl Edwards is the best driver in Sprint Cup. That is my personal opinion. It doesn’t make it law or fact but I think to go with that you could probably place an argument for Kevin (Harvick) as the second best. It is a bit subjective.”

Try, try again…

No one will be happier to climb into the cockpit of a car on Friday than Kurt Busch. While Busch volleyed multiple attempts to answer questions regarding his pending domestic abuse case in Kent County (Del.) Family Court, the former Cup champion was relieved when the line of questioning returned to racing.

Clearly, Busch is delighted to have Tony Gibson as his crew chief this season. In addition to the challenges in NASCAR, Busch is still considering a return to Indy in May and a Chili Bowl run next January.

“I haven't talked much about Indy due to all the other extracurricular fun, so I would say that last year I remember going through Speedweeks and talking to Andretti, and once we finally arrived at the turning point of going ahead with it, it was more towards the first of March, which gives him enough time to round up the certain employees and team members and all of the support that goes along with running the Indy 500,” Busch said. “We'll see how that goes.” 

Group effort

Kevin Harvick is enjoying his time on top – Harvick has embraced his new moniker “Champ”, which he admits is “pretty cool”. It’s not lost on the 39-year-old Bakersfield, Calif.-native that he’s joined an elite fraternity. But Harvick is well aware that he didn’t earn the title on his own.

it's a group of racers, but it's so strange in an environment where have you hundreds of people, to have everybody support and push and care about what the other one's doing and in a very relaxed atmosphere.

Kevin Harvick

“When you look at the list of guys that have won a championship, it's pretty small,” Harvick adds.  “But I think as a guy who has been a part of this sport, for me, I think it was better that I won a championship a little bit later in my career, because I think I respect it a lot more and understand how hard it is to get to this point and really know the work and effort that and how many people it takes to be a part of it. 

“And this group of guys that I'm with, with Rodney and all the guys on my team, but really SHR in general, it's just such a unique place to work and be a part of.  And it's a group of racers, but it's so strange in an environment where have you hundreds of people, to have everybody support and push and care about what the other one's doing and in a very relaxed atmosphere. 

“To be a part of a team and see every piece sort of pulling in the same direction and supporting the other, whether the chips are up or down, is something that is just so amazing to be a part of; that not everybody gets to be a part of…I owned my own race teams, I drove at RCR and you always are trying to mix and match the pieces, but it's just so different with what I have at SHR and on the number 4 team.”

 

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Event Daytona 500
Track Daytona International Speedway
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Carl Edwards , Brad Keselowski , Ricky Stenhouse Jr. , Danica Patrick , Kyle Busch
Article type Interview