(Whether or not Busch can get the No. 51 Chevrolet up front on a regular basis remains a big question for 2012)
Call it the calm before the storm but the next two weeks should be on the quiet side as the NASCAR world readies for Daytona’s Speedweeks.
After the busiest off-season in the sport’s history, most of the major stories of the winter months have been announced and there’s not much else to come until the roar of engines officially kicks off the year at Daytona.
However there are a few topics that either flew under the radar during last week’s annual Media Tour in Charlotte or at the very least deserve a little more dissection as we count down to NASCAR 2012:
Kurt Busch 2.0
Busch continues to stress how refreshed he feels with his new ventures working with team owner James Finch and Phoenix Racing in the Sprint Cup Series as well as teaming up with younger brother Kyle on a Nationwide program at Kyle Busch Motorsports. Say what you will about the tempestuous Busch and his past behavior, he understands the importance of this season and what it will mean to his career.
In Busch’s mind it’s all about going back to the roots of how he started in the sport.
“Expectations for us are one weekend at a time,” said Busch. “It will be little victories for us that we take in. Whether it’s finishing 15th, but putting the car back in the hauler without a scratch on it. It’s about racing smart and old school racing. It’s like when I raced my dad’s Legend Car. If I wrecked it one weekend, I couldn’t race the next. It’s a balance of understanding how to get the best out of the car and protect it.
“Things change and happen for a reason. At the end of the day, is it money you put in your pocket or the fun you have doing it?”
Some still believe Busch won’t last more than a month or two with Phoenix before his frustration boils over if the team isn’t competitive. Others think Busch will contend for wins and maybe even a Chase spot. There’s no middle ground on views with the polarizing drivers which makes this one of the more interesting stories to watch in the coming season.
Earnhardt Jr. Comfortable with Hendrick
There is an aura of confidence coming from NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver that has not been present for several years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. truly sounds like someone who believes he has a chance to win races and contend for a championship most certainly the by product of his best season in years.
Earnhardt’s seventh place finish in the Sprint Cup standings but more importantly his flourishing relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte has the driver of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet thinking about big things in 2012.
“I’m relaxed,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I had a good offseason and I didn’t really have a whole lot of things going on. All I’ve got to think about is doing better than I did last year and are we doing what we need to do as a team to do that. I feel closer to winning races.
“I feel like the potential is there for us to make that happen, which is a good feeling…..gives me a lot of confidence that this year could be the year we get it done.”
Of course getting it done means finally erasing the winless drought that has stretched to more than three years now. But Earnhardt and Letarte are well aware getting that goose egg off the board is a must this season.
“2011 was a good year,” Letarte said. “I really, really enjoyed it. It was a really good year. I think it’s time for us now to have a great year. I think we need to get the zero out of the win column to have a great year.”
Earnhardt believes there are several signs that point to the continued upward trend for this team in the coming campaign.
“You just kind of keep trying,” he said. “Talent evolves in this sport, technology evolves in this sport and teams are good and somebody else comes and takes their spot. Hopefully we’re the next guys that go in that spot. That’s about all you can hope for.”
“Boys Have at It” Revisited
NASCAR officials addressed the sometimes controversial policy of letting drivers police themselves on the race track last week during the annual “State of the Sport” session that ended the tour.
Somewhat surprisingly the sanctioning body appears ready to take a harder look at some of the behavior that in many minds went over the line last season.
While the Kyle Busch-Ron Hornaday Texas truck incident got the most attention for NASCAR’s determination that the “Boys Have at It” line had been crossed, there were other altercations that have caught officials’ attention.
“The one thing that sticks in people’s mind is hooking a guy in the right rear,” said NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton. “Giving a guy a bumper shot and doing different things, there are differences in that. But the thing that becomes more clear to those of us who are discussing these matters, when you hook a guy in the right rear, that’s something that needs to get looked at.”
While NASCAR most likely won’t get into the business of calling ticky tack fouls when drivers make incidental contact while racing hard, the flagrant and blatant actions coming as a means of retaliation and payback may have more ramifications in 2012.
Digital and Social Media
NASCAR, teams, drivers, sponsors and even media outlets all expressed the importance of digital and social media during the tour.
More than ever Twitter, Facebook and online initiatives are shaping the face of the sport.
The sanctioning body has made several internal hires to beef up its presence in social media and the deal to buy back its digital rights from Turner Broadcasting appears ready to pave the way for both television and radio broadcasts of NASCAR races to be streamed as early as this season.
Throw in the discussion about NASCAR’s new television contract that comes up for renewal in 2014 – which will again mean billions of dollars pumped into the sport – plus ratings, attendance as well as the economic climate impacting teams with sponsors and the business of racing is a extremely hot topic right now.
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