NASCAR: Live from Charlotte

NASCAR media tour: The fun continues

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Less than 24 hours after a hotly contested Rolex 24 sports car race at Daytona International Speedway, America's auto-racing media have converged on Charlotte for the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Through Thursday, NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, as well as the sanctioning body itself, will stage a series of news conferences to lay out their hopes and plans for the 2014 season. ESPN will provide full coverage of the week's events over a variety of platforms, including Twitter via @ESPNMotorsports.

Senior editor for motorsports K. Lee Davis and I will be compiling information for a live blog, which you are familiar with during NASCAR race weekends, so be sure to check the site often for updates throughout the day.

-- John Oreovicz





Fresh start for Truex at Furniture Row

While the media hemmed and hawed about the unseasonably cold weather in Charlotte -- where a couple inches of snow are forecast for Tuesday evening and local schools released children at lunchtime -- Martin Truex Jr. checked in via Skype from the Caribbean island of Anguilla for the Furniture Row Racing press conference.

The team stressed that it's an excused absence for Truex, who is entering his first season with the Denver-based Sprint Cup team.

It's a fresh start for the New Jersey native, who endured a tumultuous end to his relationship with Michael Waltrip Racing late last year. The driver was perceived by many to be an innocent bystander in the Spingate debacle over team orders that resulted in Truex's exclusion from the Chase for the Sprint Cup. MWR executive Ty Norris was suspended by NASCAR for more than four months, and the No. 56 team lost chief sponsor NAPA Auto Parts.

Fortunately for Truex, Furniture Row was seeking a driver to replace the departing Kurt Busch, and now Truex gets his shot at elevating an organization that last year became the first one-car team to qualify a car for the Chase.

"A lot of things happened last year, and the best thing for me was to move on and forget about it," Truex said. "This helps that process. I really enjoyed my time at MWR. We did a lot of great things there and I hope I helped build that team into a championship organization.

"Honestly, I hated the way it ended, but moving on has been a good thing for me."

The driver change is just about the only thing different for FRR, which enjoyed a breakout season with Busch. The team was in contention to win several races, only to fall just short.

"We're looking forward to the season with our new driver to carry on right where we left off," said FRR competition director Pete Rondeau. "We were close to Victory Lane last year and we are going to keep chasing it this year. We'll try to give Martin everything he thinks he needs."

"We have different rules, and some different things with the cars, so we won't really know how we stack up until we race week in and week out," added crew chief Todd Berrier. "But it's the same core group of people. I feel like we had a really good opportunity to win several races last year. We could have done some things better as a team, and some were circumstances. The good thing is we knew we were there as a team, and it's just a matter of capitalizing."

Truex brought the house down near the end of his Skype session when, with a backdrop of palm trees and beaches behind him, he was handed a cocktail with comical timing too good to be true.

"I swear that wasn't planned, but it couldn't have been timed any better," he said.

"Every team in the garage area, especially with the new format, wants to be in the Chase and race for a championship," he added. "I've been in it a few times, and was unfortunate to be kicked out of it. There's gonna be a lot of things for us to process and go through, but honestly, I feel really good about our chances of being competitive and consistent enough to get ourselves in the chase. If you're in it, you've got a chance."

-- John Oreovicz








All-Star Weekend tweaked for value

Charlotte Motor Speedway revealed minor changes to the format of the Sprint All-Star Weekend in an effort to provide greater value to fans.

The biggest tweak involves moving the Sprint Showdown qualifying race to Friday night, to accompany the Carolina Lottery NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race. Friday tickets will be priced at $25, with free admission for kids 13 and under.

Saturday's action includes the three-lap qualifying showdown that includes a four-tire hot pit stop, along with the All-Star Race, which maintains the same five-segment format utilized since 2012.

As usual, a $1 million prize awaits the winner. CMS president and general manager Marcus Smith said he hopes to bring back Bruton's Big Bonus, an additional $1 million bonus for any driver who sweeps all five segments -- but that has not been finalized yet.

"These changes mean fans get even more bang for their buck here at 'The Greatest Place To See The Race,'" Smith said. "Friday night is gonna be an awesome ticket. Folks will have a chance to race their way in to the All-Star Race, and we'll have the fan vote, as well. On Saturday, you'll see full-speed, four-tire pit stop on pit road, which really hasn't gotten the exposure it deserves.

"I like to say the All-Star Race is the best race for a new fan," he added. "It's the quickest, most fun race, all packed into one simple night."

Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kurt Busch, winner of the 2010 All Star Race, gave his perspective on the event.

"When you have the dollar signs in your eyes, you lose track of what reality is," Busch remarked. "Everybody just gets amped up about it. You're in your backyard and it's a fun atmosphere all week long."

-- John Oreovicz





RCR has international influence

Mike Coughlin could be forgiven for experiencing culture shock in the NASCAR environment after a career spent mostly in Formula One.

But the 55-year-old Englishman, who was appointed technical director of Richard Childress Racing in November, insists that's not the case.

"Is it really such a culture shock?" Coughlin pondered. "I don't think so. It's a racing culture, and the people here are as motivated and technically adept as they are in F1. I think once you agree your company is going to be data-driven and engineering-based, the cultures aren't really deep down that different.

"The level of engineering is similar to F1 -- they're just different. There's a lot more emphasis here on the handling of the car, the grip of the car. I think a lot more time is spent understanding vehicle dynamics than in F1."

Actually, this is Coughlin's second tour of NASCAR duty. He spent part of the 2011 season with Michael Waltrip Racing before returning to F1 for two years with the Williams team.

With RCR, Coughlin will oversee technical development for the three-car team in the Sprint Cup Series, featuring drivers Paul Menard, Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon. RCR also will field Nationwide Series cars this year for Ty Dillon and Brendan Gaughan.

Coughlin insists that he is making a lateral move from F1 to NASCAR.

"It's still an engineering challenge," he said. "I joke that I'm not a great car lover, but I am a very enthusiastic engineer, very competitive. The car is the mechanism for you to show that flair.

"The engineering challenge is exactly the same as Formula One -- saving weight, making things behave as you wish -- the compliance of the wheels and suspension, aerodynamic gains. There's a lot of performance to be found in aerodynamics, even though the shape is quite constrained. We spend a lot of time in the wind tunnel.

"It's the same in terms of competitiveness, but different in the way you approach them."

The biggest challenge the lifelong road racer has had to overcome is the radical car design and setup required for maximum performance on oval tracks, which make up more than 90 percent of the NASCAR schedule.

"With a Formula One car, it's very easy to say, 'Here's the centerline,'" he said. "In a NASCAR [car], there is no centerline. We're very biased in terms of suspension and layout, and very biased in terms of the body shape. The big challenge is that you are only permitted to turn one way, apart from the odd road race."

-- John Oreovicz




Ganassi group looking for improvement

Day 2 of the NASCAR media tour started on a lighthearted note.

I'm not sure what generated more laughs -- a picture of Michael Bolton in his glorious 1990 mullet, or Felix Sabates' comedy show.

The shot of Bolton was used to help kick off the 25th anniversary celebration of Chip Ganassi Racing (#Ganassi25 in the modern vernacular), while Sabates was at the forefront in the absence of team principal Ganassi, who was otherwise occupied at the IndyCar Series team owner meetings in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Ganassi's larger-than-life visage was present in the form of a video presentation that recounted his team's successes over the past quarter-century: Seventeen championships and more than 150 race wins in Indy car, sports car and stock car competition.

Chip Ganassi Racing has grown from a single-car Indy car operation in 1990 to a multifaceted entity with more than 300 employees scattered between three race shops in three cities, fielding seven cars for eight drivers in three series (IndyCar Series, TUDOR United Sports Car Championship and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series).

The NASCAR team, which brought Ganassi together with Sabates in 2001, has been the least successful of the three -- which is something Ganassi & Co. intend to reverse in 2014.

After an eight-year run in stock cars, Juan Pablo Montoya is out, replaced by hotshot rookie Kyle Larson in the No. 42 car. Jamie McMurray returns in the No. 1 car.

With Ganassi gone, it was up to Sabates to warm up the crowd for the drivers. And as usual, he succeeded.

"In 1990 I was chasing Kyle Petty around trying to make sure he just showed up at the racetrack," Sabates cracked.

"The best thing about this year for me personally is my name is bigger in the logo," he added. "As you get older, you can't read as well."

Poking fun at the team's 8:30 a.m. slot on the media tour docket, he quipped: "If we had 10 wins, we'd be in at 4 o'clock and you guys could be drinking vodka."

The serious business was left to McMurray, who will be expected to mentor Larson through his rookie Sprint Cup campaign.

"Last year was challenging for different reasons," McMurray said. "One driver [Montoya] knew he was leaving in August and we made a transition in crew chief. Being able to win a race and win a pole, it was actually a good season for the 1 car with the adversity we faced."

The changes to the No. 1 team include Keith Rodden replacing Kevin "Bono" Manion as crew chief, Tony Lunders as the new car chief and Josh Sell as the new engineer.

"The transition to Keith has been easier than I expected," McMurray said. "He already understood the simulation program, which really helped.

"I feel like we're in the best place this organization has been in since I joined the team," he added. "I feel the whole organization believes we're gonna have a good year and I'm excited about getting under way."

Larson, who wasn't yet born in 1990 when Ganassi set out as a team owner, arrives as one of the most heralded drivers in this year's rookie class of eight.

"It's going to be really special for me -- my rookie year in the Cup Series and being part of Chip's 25-year celebration," he said. "I'm really anxious to get going. I'm hoping for really good things this year -- maybe get a win, but hoping for consistency."

-- John Oreovicz