The Hot Pass: Junior still biggest topic of interest

BY foxsports • January 22, 2010

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Media Tour has the feel of the first week back at school.

However, the fear that this tour would be a repeat of “What did you do on your winter vacation?” dissipated as soon as the wishful thinking of a spoiler on the Cup car became reality.

Why? Because drivers could start talking about cars and racing again.

NASCAR’s initiative to meet with team principals in the weeks before this tour put a different spin on how the competitors chose to use the pulpit. Rather than a whining session, owners and drivers were on the same page, singing "Kumbaya" for the fourth estate. Details of spoilers, restrictor plates and bump drafting were covered in sunshine and lollipops.

While the message was interrupted when word leaked of Cup Series Director John Darby’s reassignment on Tuesday morning, the mood returned to fun and games by lunch as party favors of his and her ExtenZe samples were placed strategically on each table. No doubt, Front Row Racing and driver Kevin Conway will be pushing hard for this year’s rookie title.

But what were the compelling stories this week?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. — The Franchise

As goes Junior, so does the sport.

It’s a shame to heap that amount of pressure on any one driver, but he accepts the responsibility that comes with the Earnhardt name.

And despite the heralded season his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon enjoyed last year, the driver who finished 25th in the point standings still attracts the most ink.

Earnhardt’s honest account of how his season spiraled down after missing his own pit box in Daytona will make most of the daily papers and Internet sites by Monday. Although the team combated the problem by creating a sign that Mr. Magoo could spot, Junior’s solution for not making the same “mental mistakes” in 2010 were not drawn out. However, Earnhardt spoke of the “changing culture” of his race shop with enthusiasm and promised to “be ruthless from his first lap to his last.”

Joe Gibbs Racing — The Contenders

The ink on Kyle Busch’s contract is dry, locking down the driver’s seat of the No. 18 Toyota long-term and the future of Gibbs Racing. And with teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, JGR has the most promising under-30 stable in the garage.

But which of the two veteran drivers of the JGR camp emerges as the alpha dog? Hamlin has had a long run with Mike Ford and truly believes he can win the title. Busch is in a rebuilding year with crew chief Dave Rogers and aspired to build a similar relationship to the No. 11 team.

While all three drivers and sponsors are secure for the near future, don’t be surprised if news of an expansion hits before year’s end.

Roush Fenway Racing — The Expansion

Tell Jack Roush he can’t have five teams and he’ll mushroom his platform to eight. Yes, Richard Petty Motorsports is a separate entity — on the same campus — but Roush’s general, Max Jones, is overseeing the operation and the data will flow.

As for the four Roushkateers, expect their equipment to be light years ahead of 2009. Roush has expanded his engineering staff to 36 and will ensure no centimeter of the cars is overlooked in the development process.

On the team side, veteran Donnie Wingo replaces Jimmy Fennig as crew chief on the No. 6 Ford in a make-or-break season for David Ragan.

Across the street at RPM, all four drivers’ contracts are up at the end of the year, but the buzz will follow Kasey Kahne all season. Will his cars be stout enough to encourage him to stay in the Ford camp? By May, the numbers should tell the tale.

Richard Childress Racing — The revitalization

RCR didn’t wait until the offseason to start working on 2010. Scott Miller was reassigned from the No. 31 team to competition director in October to get a head start. The results were noticeable immediately. Todd Berrier moved to the No. 31 and lit a fire under Jeff Burton. Together, Burton and Berrier finished ninth or better in the final four races, including second-place runs at Phoenix and Homestead.

The expansion to four cars last season was not kind to Clint Bowyer, who sacrificed both his team and his crew chief for Casey Mears. Bowyer started the season with four finishes of sixth or better in the first six races but never picked up speed. With Mears’ departure, Bowyer will likely benefit the most, because he is the future of RCR.

After a decade with RCR, Kevin Harvick made it clear this is the final year of his contract. Whether he stays or departs for greener pastures will likely depend on whether his cars pick up considerably and what the market will bear.

Penske Racing — A new direction

When talk turns to Roger Penske sporting blue jeans and sneakers, it’s clear the dynamic has shifted for the Captain’s crews. But a vibrant driver such as Brad Keselowski can have that effect on an organization. The expectations are high for Keselowski, and he appears ready to change the luck on the No. 12 Dodge. Since his arrival, Penske Racing has added two sponsors, including a new category with Ruby Tuesday restaurants. In this economic climate, that’s a coup.

And while Penske has picked up the option on Kurt Busch’s contract, the former champ is still negotiating the terms. The question remains: Will the scratch be significant to Eva Busch in equestrian heaven? After all, brother Kyle quipped that he races for trophies while Kurt races for Eva. Still, early reports from new crew chief Steve Addington after testing were positive — equaling the description of his driver’s attitude. Busch finished fourth in the point standings last year and intends to improve that mark.

Sam Hornish Jr. quickly grew tired of answering the question “Will the third year be the charm as it was for Juan Pablo Montoya?” Hornish was inconsistent in 2009 and realized he has work to do. With three teams on the same page, it could help the former Indy champ’s learning curve considerably.

Stewart-Haas Racing — Sophomore season

SHR had the cars, the power and the sponsorship to contend quickly among the top teams in 2009. Although pundits expected this pair to be solid, Tony Stewart’s ability to take the points lead in his 13th race in the No. 14 Chevrolet and Ryan Newman locking down a Chase berth were impressive.

Throughout the first year, it was easy to identify the weak link — particularly for Newman — was in the pit stops. Subsequently, Director of Competition Bobby Hutchens worked out an alliance with TRG Racing to provide pit crews throughout the season while training talent and developing depth in the ranks.

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing — On Target

Juan Pablo Montoya and his new teammate, Jamie McMurray, who returns to EGR following a four-year stint with Jack Roush, will have the opportunity to get acquainted in the Rolex 24 at Daytona before Speedweeks.

The key to EGR’s success depends on whether these two teams work well together. The affable McMurray is coming off a season where he won his second career restrictor plate race. He was the only Roush driver to win after February.

Montoya convincingly qualified for his first Chase appearance and should thrive with another season of stock cars behind him. He continues to display tremendous car control and has seamlessly made the transition from road courses to ovals. If officiating falls his way in 2010, he might just get that oval trophy.

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