NASCAR held its annual media day Thursday, in advance of the season opening Daytona 500 on Sunday Feb. 23. Drivers from all three of NASCAR's major touring series made the rounds meeting with print and web reporters along with television and radio journalists. In addition drivers got headshots taken, made the teases that fans will see on TV and generally got back in the groove.
Most drivers and teams were able to make it to Daytona Beach ahead of a snowstorm that socked in most of the Charlotte, North Carolina area, where the majority of NASCAR teams are based; it wasn't without a little drama for some however.
"We were smart, repositioned our plane to Charlotte-Douglas," reigning Sprint Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson said. "The trip from the hangar to the runway was exciting. They hadn't plowed any of that. I thought I was in an off-road truck for a while trying to get out to the runway."
The big stories heading into the season start with the return of Tony Stewart. After missing most of last season due to an injury suffered in a dirt car race in Iowa, Stewart climbs back into the No. 14 Chevy for the first time Friday.
"You know, normally I'm thinking in days and weeks," Stewart said Thursday. "Now I'm thinking in hours. I'm excited about it. It's been a long time since August 5th. Normally we're talking about the off-season. It just seems like it flies by. It's been the slowest off-season I've ever had. I'm ready to get doing something again."
Another big story was the reaction from Danica Patrick in reference to seven-time champion Richard Petty's remarks earlier in the week. To paraphrase, Petty said the only way Patrick could win a Sprint Cup race was if everyone else stayed home.
"You know, people have said things in the past, and they're going to say things in the future," Patrick said. "I still say the same thing: that everyone's entitled to their own opinion. People are going to judge what he said, whether they judge it well or not, and I'm just not going to."
Patrick added that Petty's remark wouldn't motivate her at all.
"You can't try any harder in the car," Patrick said. "I think that's something that probably every driver would tell you when someone questions our effort level. You can't try any harder. You're doing everything you can. And maybe subconsciously there's some motivation, but I can't tell. I'm giving it my all every single time I'm getting in the car, whether I'm making a simple qualifying run or I'm in the race."
"It is what it is," she added. "And again, people are entitled to their opinions, and that's fine."
The other focus is on the new points system NASCAR will use to determine its season ending champion. Under the new format, race wins will determine who makes the season ending Chase; drivers will then be eliminated over the course of the final ten races of the season with four drivers being eligible for the title at the final race at Homestead; the highest finishing driver will be crowned champion.
"I think we needed it," Joey Logano said. "You look at other sports – college football is changing their structure. We're to the point we needed to make a change and do something to get it livened up a little bit. It's definitely gonna change it up. Think about how much we're talking about it. This is good. We need this for our sport and I think the guys who wins the championship is gonna be a deserving guy. The final four guys are not gonna be there by chance."
Finally, NASCAR has changed its qualifying procedures. No longer will single car qualifying runs determine the starting order. Beginning with the second race of the season at Phoenix, NASCAR will use a group qualifying format that will eliminate slower cars similar to that used in Formula 1.
"I feel like we needed to do that a few years ago," four time champion Jeff Gordon said. "When F1 started doing it, I was instantly a huge fan and said, Man, I wish we had this. I love that they're incorporating that."
Thursday morning prior to the start of media day, NASCAR Vice President for competition Robin Pemberton said that based on input from the teams, the new qualifying procedure has been tweaked and crewmembers will now be allowed to make minor adjustments during part of the qualifying sessions.
"There's a few little tweaks that probably are going to need to happen with that as well," Gordon said. "I was real happy to see them being open-minded and them recognizing some things that needed to be done and they did that."
The first practice for the Sprint Cup series will be Friday. The non-points Sprint Unlimited race will be held Saturday night with qualifying for the first two starting spots for the Daytona 500 will be Sunday.