UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour - Day 4
by Stan Creekmore, NASCAR Editor

January 24, 2003

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The final day of the four-day UAW-GM Lowe’s Media Tour woke up to a layer of snow that blanketed the Carolinas and threatened to cancel all activities.

Certainly Mother Nature must know by now you can’t stop three bus loads of determined media members from their appointed rounds. Therefore, despite a slick sheet of ice on the roads that closed schools and most businesses while leaving the interstate littered with accidents, we proceeded.

To the benefit of the tour, the first stop was at the headquarters hotel. The members of the Roush Racing organization including Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Stanton Barrett and Jon Wood were on hand to discuss the coming season.

While the drivers discussed their expectations for 2003, Geoff Smith, President of Roush Racing, was in the back talking about being served with a subpoena from Brooke Gordon’s lawyers.

Smith said it appeared Brooke’s attorneys were attempting to verify the validity information already supplied from Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports. Smith’s first step in the legal process would be to ask a judge to set aside the subpoena. In the likelihood he was unsuccessful, Smith would then ask for a order to keep limit those able to view the documents and to ensure the documents were not part of the public record.

“Giving them our confidential information is like opening our books to Hendrick Motorsports and that is not something we should be forced to do,” said Smith.

Back at the podium, Martin praised the progress his team, under the direction of crew chief Ben Leslie, continues to make.

“It’s just like last year, I just don’t know what will happen,” said Martin. “There are a lot of things that look a lot better than they did a year ago. We have our pit crew together already and we have already tested some really fast cars.”

Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, with nine wins between them in 2002, look to build on those accomplishments without changing much.

“I’m approaching this season the same as last year,” said Kenseth. “Who would have dreamed we’d have won that many races last year after the season we had the year before. I’m just going to approach it one week at a time like I did last year.”

Busch echoed Kenseth’s remarks, but added their was some definite room for improvement.

“There are still a few race tracks we have to learn. We’ll assess our program at midseason, and hopefully we can make a second-half push toward the championship.”

The sour spot in the Roush apple in 2002 was Jeff Burton. Expected the challenge for the championship Burton was an also ran who ended up switching crew chiefs near the end of the season.

“We grossly underachieved last year. We just didn’t get it done. We made some drastic changes to our team. I feel like I’m driving for a different team, but with the same car owner. We are more in tune with what our teammates are doing than we were at this time last year.”

Greg Biffle is entering his first full-time season as a Winston Cup driver after winning championships in both the Craftsman Truck and Busch Series divisions.

Is there pressure to achieve the same results in Winston Cup.

“I don’t feel that much pressure. I would like to win rookie of the year, but our notebook is empty. We haven’t been able to carry our Busch Series notes over to the Winston Cup car. We’re just trying to pay attention to what our teammates are doing, and learn from them.”

Stanton Barrett is the new kid on the block at Roush Racing. The Hollywood stunt car driver will drive the No. 60 OdoBan Ford on the Busch Series in 2003.

“I’m very pleased to be part of this organization. I can’t wait to get the season started. I’ve been racing for 12 years and it means the world to me to get this opportunity.”

Leaving the confines of the hotel, the members of the media tour braved the slick roads for a short trip to the racing shops of MBV and MB2 for conversations with Johnny Benson and Jerry Nadeau.

Benson continues to drive the No. 10 Valvoline Pontiac, while Nadeau is the pilot of the No. 1 Army Pontiac.

“I haven’t been the luckiest guy on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit,” said Nadeau, following an introduction by Jim Hunter, Vice President of Communications at NASCAR and Army Lt. General Dennis Cavin. “This is one of my best opportunities to win Winston Cup races. It is another great opportunity for me.”

Benson is pumped up for the new season and is hoping to build on his first Winston Cup win, the Popcorn 400 at Rockingham last year.

“I feel good about the equipment the guys are building. We don’t have as many cars ready as we did at this time last year, but that’s because of the new chassis and the new body positions.”

Next on the agenda was what has become an annual stop on the tour, a trip to Hendrick Motorsports.

Waiting patiently for the press were drivers Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Joe Nemechek, Jimmie Johnson and their respective crew chiefs. The head of the organization, Rick Hendrick, was unable to attend. The foul weather had prevented him from flying back from business in California.

Terry Labonte, driver of the No. 25 Kellogg’s Chevrolet, will run in his 25th consecutive Daytona 500 this year, a major milestone in any driver’s career. “It’s exciting to be able to run our 25th Daytona 500 this year. We had a pretty good test at Talladega this week and we should have a good shot at it.”

The entire Hendrick organization is confident the battle to win the Daytona 500 will be between themselves.

Joe Nemechek, in his first full season as the driver of the No. 25 UAW Chevrolet, is especially confident.

“I think everybody saw how Peter and I got things turned around at the end of last season,” said Nemechek. “We have a lot of momentum going into this year…We struggled when I joined the team, but we worked really hard and we did a couple of tests and all of a sudden, we were on fire. We needed to find out what to do to the cars so I could drive them.”

The torch bearers of the Hendrick organization in 2002 were four-time champion Jeff Gordon and rookie sensation Jimmie Johnson. Both are confident they will improve on last year because the Hendrick teams are working even closer than ever before.

“We’re going to try to have the same approach that we had last season. We are going to try to finish races and run in the top 15 all the time. We are going to preach all the same things we did last year, and stay realistic about what we can do.”

“It’s amazing to see how well these four teams are working together preparing for this season,” added Gordon.

On the legal side, Hendrick executives said they were confident the legal maneuvering consistent with a messy divorce would not compromise the efforts of the organization in 2003. Nor would the demands of Brooke Gordon’s lawyers put any confidential information at risk of becoming public.

The next to the last stop in the tour involved a return trip to the University Hilton for a chat with Joe Gibbs, Jimmy Makar, Greg Zipadelli and Michael McSwain. Tony Stewart arrived late but did not short the media of any time, staying to answer every question put to him.

Makar, now in a redefined role as General Manager, will oversee the efforts of both Zipadelli and McSwain. Makar will ensure that both crew chiefs can spend as much time as possible dealing directly with the race cars.

“This off season has been a lot different for me,” Makar said. “A lot of the time has been spent trying to figure out what my new role is. It’s been fun creating my own job, which is basically what we have been doing.”

One thing Makar has not yet done is sit down with Zipadelli and discuss the demands of defending a Winston Cup title.

“We haven’t done that yet,” admitted Makar. “But, in the next week or so Zip and I will go off into a corner by ourselves and I’ll try to tell him what to expect and how he might avoid the pitfalls that can ruin a season because of the demands of being the champion. The key is to just do your deal. Do what got you here and forget about the distractions.”

Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, gave the press something to think about when he said two many multi-car teams are bad for the sport.

“The best thing for this sport is to have 43 HEALTHY race teams out there on the race track clawing and scratching at each of for the win every time the green flag waves. We don’t need just a few teams here and there dominating the sport,” said Gibbs.

The tour ended with a stop at Rusty Wallace, Inc. with Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman.

Wallace made the most interesting comment of the night when he admitted he had finally bought into the technology and race cars.

“It was about three-fifths of the way through the year last year that I admitted all this engineering was something we needed to be doing. So Billy Wilburn and myself we bought into what Ryan Newman Matt Borland were doing with their cars,” said Wallace.

Later in the evening Wallace admitted he probably wouldn’t drive past the year 2005 and his hopes were that his younger son, Steven, would be the driver to fill his shoes.

“Patty thinks I am bringing him along to quickly but he is tearing up the track in the Legends cars and his schoolwork is really good. So, I really hope he’ll be the one to fill the seat when I step aside.”

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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