Up ahead: Storylines abound with Daytona fast approaching
Well, we are down to under 40 days until we run the Daytona 500. Time grows short and there’s a lot of excitement up ahead. The thing to remember is it’s not only on the track but also with NASCAR’s TV partners. There are a lot of interesting storylines we’ll all want to watch.
It’s amazing how many drivers will go to Daytona with a new crew chief. There will be someone new calling the shots and being a new voice in many drivers’ heads. Initially, it can be a bit of a concern for a driver for the obvious reason that they’ve never worked together before. We always talk about how important the communication and chemistry is between those two. It really is like a marriage. You have to work at it for it to be successful and long-lasting.
In between that period you have practices, qualifying, the Sprint Unlimited race, the Duel races and then obviously the granddaddy of them all — the Daytona 500. So that gives these new driver/crew chief combinations a lot of time together.
So that familiarity with each other will grow as the days go by in Daytona. The crew chief will learn how to interpret the feedback he’s getting from his new driver. How loose is loose? How tight is tight? That just comes from repetition of working together. No kidding, if the chemistry is there, the crew chiefs literally will be able to interpret changes simply from the different octaves the driver’s voice goes up. If you don’t believe me, go ask Jeff Hammond. He could tell from how many octaves my voice went up, how big the issue really was during practice or the race.
The drivers are looking to see if their crew chief can give them a car they can race comfortably in. Will this car run and handle like they want it to? Those are the things that a driver always wonders about and initially questions when he is paired with a new crew chief. I really don’t see any issues with the new pairings that we’ve seen during the off-season. These owners have become really intuitive about whether this combination or that combination will work. As I like to say, the goal never is for your two and my two adding up to four. The ultimate goal is for your two and my two adding up to five.
I like the new combinations we’ve got going into this season — for example, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Ives, Carl Edwards and Darian Grubb, and Kasey Kahne and Keith Rodden. With that said, there is always a surprise that pops up. We saw it last year with Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers. While a few of us thought they would be a great pairing, I don’t know that any of us saw them going all the way to the head table at Las Vegas in their very first year together — but they did. We just don’t know who will be that magic combination yet. It’s just too early and the season has to unfold before that picture will be clear.
One of the other benefits these new driver/crew chief pairings will have is there are zero rule changes at Daytona from last year. What you ran in February and July of 2014 down there still applies to February of this year. For instance, Aric Armirola has already said they are taking the same car he won the July Daytona race with last year, back to Daytona this year. So that’s a positive and one less hurdle these new combinations have to face.
So with that said, you have to think that will favor Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is the defending winner of the Daytona 500. He and others who had great cars last February should be able to duplicate or improve on their performance down there from a year ago. I think we’ll have a surprise pole winner. It’s just something we’ve seen over the years at Daytona.
Go back and look at the unexpected names that have started on the pole in the history of the Daytona 500. Just recently we had Danica Patrick win the pole and then last year then-rookie Austin Dillon won the pole there in the return of the No. 3 car. So expect the unexpected when it comes to qualifying on Sunday, Feb. 15, on FOX, because it just always seems there will be a team that comes up with a qualifying package a little better than everyone else.
I also like what we have to look forward to this year once we get past Daytona, too. We’ve got some minor changes on the car for 2015 with less downforce and less horsepower. You are just going to hustle the car more, and like any rule change, it will be interesting to see who gets their arms around the right setup combination first.
Drivers told me time and time again last year that the car stuck to the track like glue, handled great and they really didn’t have the sensation of going over 200 miles per hour pretty regularly at most racetracks. The thing that is going to be really interesting to watch is who benefits or who suffers from these changes for 2015, as the cars will be a little harder to drive.
I think we saw last year that Dale Jr. and his teammate, Jeff Gordon, benefited from a car that was stuck to the racetrack, while their other teammate, Jimmie Johnson, struggled most of the season trying to get the car to handle the way he liked. I think you also saw last year’s rule changes hurt a guy like Matt Kenseth, who won seven races in 2013 but didn’t win a single event in 2014. So as the cars get back to more like the 2013 setups, it’s going to be interesting to see if Jimmie and Matt have 2013-type seasons as opposed to what they had last year.
That’s just another one of those "wait and see" storylines that we won’t know about until we get to Atlanta for the March 1 race. Again, we go to Daytona and Talladega, the restrictor-plate tracks this year, with no changes, but everywhere else will have less downforce and less horsepower.
So that’s what’s up ahead for the 2015 season. As I mentioned earlier, the changes aren’t only on the racetrack or in the garage area. We welcome back NBC to NASCAR. They are replacing ABC/ESPN and TNT starting this year. I’m also very excited to see both FOX and NBC reach an agreement to cross-promote the races no matter who is broadcasting them. You see it done in the NFL, and I think it does nothing but enhance our sport, and that’s always a positive.
And again, just like the new race team combinations, you will see new on-air combinations from both networks. There are a lot of new faces in new places both at FOX and naturally with NBC. So there’s a lot to look forward to that’s just up ahead. I can’t wait to get to Daytona and get this season started.
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