NASCAR

Daytona was full of surprises

Austin Dillon
Austin Dillon heads for the track inthe No. 3 carduring testing at Daytona.
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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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We opened the 2014 season last week at Daytona with testing. As you know, the first day was a washout as the rain just kept coming. Despite the fact there was no on-track action, there definitely was plenty going on off the track. It seemed like the theme of the day was “Breaking News.” It just seemed like every time we turned around, there was some type of press announcement.

Actually, the tone was set the night before when NASCAR chairman Brian France was on Sirius radio talking about the things he and his management group are considering for the future. They are looking at a qualifying format change which, as I have said repeatedly, we desperately need. I like the idea of knockout qualifying. It works really well in Formula One racing, and I think it would blow much-needed excitement into NASCAR qualifying.

While we already know nothing will change in 2014, Brian hinted at a possible schedule change beginning in 2015. It makes a lot of sense to make the switch then. The 2015 season is the beginning of the new TV package. Most of you probably know that FOX has renewed for an additional 10 years, but the change comes in the second half of the season when NBC will replace ABC/ESPN.

Maybe NASCAR should consider a halftime break in the races. They tried it in the Truck Series when that division first hit the track. You can’t argue that the races are sometimes pretty long. Maybe taking a break at the halfway point might just be the ticket. We don’t need a bunch of gimmicks. Again, we just need some minor tweaks here and there to build more excitement into qualifying and race day.

Speaking of NBC, there was some breaking news on that front. Everyone already knew that Rick Allen and Jeff Burton had signed on to be up in the NBC booth next year. What just a few of us also knew, but what is now common knowledge, is that Steve Letarte, crew chief on the No. 88 car, will finish the 2014 season with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and then head to the booth with Rick and Jeff in 2015.

I sympathize with Dale Jr. on this. It just seems when he gets things going in his direction, he has to face more change. There was the demise of Dale Earnhardt Inc. Then he and his cousin Tony Eury Jr. had their split. Then there was the concussion that knocked him out of the Chase a couple years ago when he was running so well.

He and Steve have a great chemistry. They have similar personalities. Steve knows how to get the most out of Dale Jr., and Dale has complete trust in what Steve tells him. It is a really good relationship, but they only have one year left together. I look for 2014 to be a special year for the No. 88 car. With this being their last year as a driver/crew chief combo, I look for them to be really motivated in 2014. I know that both of them would love nothing more than to part ways as the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup champions.

A couple other announcements in Daytona concerned Richard Buck becoming the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series managing director, replacing John Darby who has held the position for the last 12 years. I spent some time with Richard in Daytona last week. He’s a really good guy with some really strong credentials. He is currently the vice president, racing operations, for the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). He will hold that position through the 2014 Rolex 24 At Daytona until the end of the month. He’s worked for Roger Penske and been part of winning the Indy 500. He’s a racer and I think he’ll have a positive impact on the garage area.

Obviously, the other really big news out of Daytona was the return of the No. 3 car in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series since that fateful day in February 2001. Young Austin Dillon wasted no time putting that No. 3 car at the top of the practice charts. I know there are a lot of torn emotions about this move by car owner and, more importantly, grandfather to Austin, Richard Childress.

When we lost Dale, there was a period when Richard considered simply leaving the sport forever. Who would have blamed him after the loss of his best friend? Instead, he stayed in the sport and when his grandsons, Austin and Ty Dillon, were ready and wanted to, he brought the No. 3 back in the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series.

With Austin ready and primed to make the jump to the NASCAR Sprint Cup ranks, it made perfect sense and perfect timing, in my book, to bring the No. 3 back. That number deserves to be back on the track honoring not only Dale but all the others that have driven it in the past, including Grandpa Richard. I know there are some that are really bothered by this decision, but I think Richard made a great call and I think this is the perfect scenario to bring the No. 3 back.

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Daytona also had a touch of “Back to the Future” this past week. Rusty Wallace was back behind the wheel for a few laps in the No. 2 car. As you know, Rusty retired a number of years ago and has been working for ESPN. He got back behind the wheel for a few laps as a ceremonial kickoff to the 25th anniversary of his 1989 championship. Then, there was Bill Elliott over in the Nationwide car working with his son, Chase.

You’ve probably already heard that Chase Elliott will run the full Nationwide schedule this year for JR Motorsports. He’ll also have the backing of NAPA Auto Parts as his sponsor. I am thrilled NAPA decided to stay in NASCAR. They are a great sponsor and they have a great young man to represent them in the Nationwide Series.

So things are ramping up and the excitement is building as we are only five weeks away from heading down to Daytona for the 2014 Speedweeks.

Tagged: Austin Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski

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