NASCAR teams offer insight into 2011

Following four days, 20 stops and more information than will ever be disseminated, the 29th annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour came to a close Thursday.

Between increased sponsor inventories and the anticipation of what will be one of the best Daytona 500s to date, the buzz in the shops was electric — and a stark departure from last year’s dread. The industry as a whole appears eager for the 2011 NASCAR season to begin.

Here are the hot topics from the tour:

1. New points system revealed

While NASCAR had been kicking around a new program for the past two years, in the last few months the 43-to-1 points system came to fruition following extensive discussions with competitors and fans.

The overwhelming response is that the system has been simplified. Eight-time championship crew chief Dale Inman used the analogy to “Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?” to describe the ease in determining results. After both NASCAR chairman Brian France and president Mike Helton personally acknowledged some confusion with the old system, it makes sense to devise a program that everyone can understand.

While it will be interesting to watch how NASCAR distributes penalties moving forward, three points for a win and a bonus point for leading a lap and another point for leading the most laps certainly is straightforward. The wild-card feature that potentially provides two Chase berths for race winners not otherwise in the field is an element that will add popular competitors to the postseason spotlight.

And if the new points system maintains the integrity of competition and potentially engages new fans, it will be better for the sport as a whole.

Now NASCAR needs to put its rookie program at the top of its agenda.

2. The pits

At first, the loss of a seventh man over the wall did not seem like a big deal. Little did we know the ramifications eliminating a catch-can man and introducing ethanol would have to the orchestration of pit stops.

Normally, updating crew rosters is a hot topic in January. But this week’s discussions evolved into multiple squads, specialization of positions and streamlining exercises with the addition of the new fuel cans.

Chad Knaus, who shuffled his pit crew at the Chase race at Texas Motor Speedway and opted to enlist the service of the No. 24 team of Jeff Gordon, has been scouring the Carolinas and offering big bucks to recruit pit-crew athletes. Knaus says he’s avoiding “guys at the back end of their careers” for legitimate crewmen “who can get the job done weekly.”

Between the teams of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Knaus says he will share three teams with crew chief Steve Letarte.

“We’ve always tried to work on the depth of our team, but have never really pulled that off,” Knaus said. “Between Stevie and myself we have more guys to draw from, we have legitimate back-ups this year so we’re really excited about that. I think we’re going in the right direction — it might take a little while to get everyone jelling but once it hits, we’re going to be really solid.

“We’ve got a full other pit crew that we’re going to work with that we’ll have at the track whether they’re working on a Nationwide car or Truck team. Between the two teams we’ll have that resource. If that resource isn’t performing the way that it needs to, then we’ll adjust that resource.”

Knaus hasn’t settled on his final six men, opting to interchange teammates in a split second if he feels performance is not up to par.

The gasman, once the sixth man on the chart, has become a more specialized position. Crew chief and former gasman Tony Gibson practiced with his crew to experience the change firsthand and offer whatever advice he could to improve that area. Certainly, the excess fuel that’s been sloshing around the pits as crews work on the new fueling procedure will take time to correct.

Also, teams are expecting an update from NASCAR regarding the number of tires that will be used throughout the course of a weekend. This could also affect pit strategy.

3. Drivers for hire

Team co-owner Jack Roush did not mince words when it came to his driver lineup beyond 2011. Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and David Ragan are all up for renewal.

Roush “expects” all three drivers to return.

“Preliminary discussions are under way with David, with Carl and with Greg and last year we made a decision going forward with Matt,” Roush said. “But Jack Roush is not front-line when negotiating with the drivers. I try to keep my focus and my attention on the drivers not based on competitive, commercial interest but on the things that we can do cooperatively to improve our competition prospects on the racetrack.

“The fact is I don’t know what the windows are for negotiations for our drivers, I don’t need to know because Steve Newman and the other people in his area are looking into that. When I need to sign something or make an approval for an agreement that’s on the table, they’ll bring it to me. Until then I’m blissfully ignorant of what’s going (on)."

With mediocre results, Ragan’s future will be predicated on performance. At 41, Biffle is likely a Roush lifer along with teammate Kenseth. But Edwards, one of the most marketable racers in NASCAR, will also be the most sought-after free agent in the garage. There have already been rumors swirling concerning interest from Penske Racing and Hendrick Motorsports in the 31-year-old. Edwards, who has posted 18 wins in 229 starts, was once believed to be the future of Roush Fenway Racing, but it will take a sizeable investment to keep him under that roof.

“I do the best I can every day to provide the best of things for our drivers,” Roush added. “If they think they have an opportunity to do better with somebody else, I have to respect that even though it may not be in our teams or our company’s best interest.”

In the wings is Trevor Bayne, who Roush is slowly developing with the Wood Brothers. While Roush has him under contract, the big picture is to see the 19-year-old progress into a full-time Cup program with a Ford team whether that’s RFR, Richard Petty Motorsports or Wood Brothers Racing.

4. Joe Gibbs Racing turns 20

It’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since Joe Gibbs attempted to leave the sidelines for asphalt.

Twenty years later and with 384 more employees on the roster, Gibbs has celebrated championships in both Sprint Cup and the Nationwide series and has built the most promising organization for the future.

Jimmy Makar, who served as the first crew chief for the organization and is currently vice president of racing operations, reflected on JGR’s immense growth.

"People ask me all the time why I went to work for a football coach who had never owned a race team," Makar said. "At the time, their driver, Dale Jarrett, had never won a race. I was leaving a team owned by one of the most successful guys in NASCAR, Roger Penske, and their driver, Rusty Wallace, who had a championship and many wins.

"We bought a bunch of stuff from Rick Hendrick so we could get started. We had to design, find and build a race shop. We had a few things working against us, but we got it together quickly."

With two of the most talented drivers in racing, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, there’s no limit to what JGR could accomplish this season.

5. Daletona

A NASCAR fan would have to be living in a cave not to have been hit with the barrage of tales recalling the 10th anniversary of the passing of Dale Earnhardt.

While Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been extremely gracious over the last decade when asked about his father, he’s made it clear there are some areas of their relationship that will remain off limits. Hopefully, his sentiments will be respected.

On Wednesday, Earnhardt Jr. covered a variety of topics in addition to his father over his 65-minute media availability. There was his new arrangement with crew chief Steve Letarte, handling the most-popular-driver distinction, shortening the length of races, why he doesn’t smile as much as he used to (he believes it’s just maturity) and how desperate he is to return the racetrack.

Despite the constant demands on Junior, he remains grateful for his opportunity.

“I’m thankful to have the opportunity in this sport that I have,” Earnhardt said. “This is the best of my career. I’m looking forward to just getting started. We had a good Daytona test in January. We have seen all the teams practice well. A lot of the work goes on in the shop, and you don’t see it, so I think we have a good opportunity. I think the more we are around the race car, the better we can be for the season. We have to understand what makes each of us tick a little better.”