NASCAR Media Tour Rolls On With Day Two
The 2018 NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway rolled into its second day on Tuesday as the star drivers from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series gear up for the season-opening events at Daytona next month.
The Day Two program kicked off with media sessions with 2017 NASCAR Rookie of the Year Erik Jones, defending Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch and 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship runner-up Kyle Busch.
Jones ran his rookie campaign driving for the Joe Gibbs Racing-aligned Furniture Row Racing as a teammate to eventual series champion Martin Truex, Jr., and after a campaign that included five top-five finishes and his first career pole position, Jones was tapped to replace former series champion Matt Kenseth as driver of the JGR no. 20 Toyota.
This season, though, the expectations are higher - especially after Kenseth was essentially brushed aside to make room for Jones in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable.
"I can remember getting into my first year in the Truck Series part‑time, and the expectation was to kind of compete and win right off the bat even at that level, and that continued up through the ranks to XFINITY and now to the Cup Series," said Jones. "I don't know if the pressure (this season) is any higher. I think just looking at the 20 car itself and the legacy it has at JGR, I think some people kind of had pressure on for that, but for me, I think the pressure is always the same. It's kind of been like that throughout my career. I've always pushed myself to contend and win races, and that hasn't changed for me."
Kurt Busch started his 2017 season in high gear when he scored his first-career Daytona 500 victory in last year’s season opener, which also locked him into the Chase right off the bat. It turned out to most fortuitous for Busch, as he never made it back to Victory Lane for the rest of the season.
This year, Busch returns as the defending race winner looking to make it two in a row, with hopefully more to come.
"I want to go back to back (Daytona victories)," said Busch. "I want to bring it home again for Monster, Ford and everybody at Stewart-Haas. You give it that same attention to detail that you give Daytona every year. If you have won it or you haven't you still go after it hard.
"It was an amazing win. The prestige, history and value of that race and just being part of it over the years was special. Now to go back there as the defending champion of the Daytona 500 gives me that much more motivation to do it again and make sure nobody shares in all the glory."
Busch was also rumored to be on the free-agent market last season, after his year-to-year deal with Stewart-Haas Racing expired. While Busch’s next move was the hot topic of discussion in the garage during the summer, Busch ended up signing an additional one-year extension with SHR in December, but would like to explore a long-term deal in the future.
"I had no worries that (a deal with SHR) was not going to happen," said Busch. "At the end of the day, there are so many parts and pieces to the sponsorship and NASCAR's entitlement sponsorship. We all agreed that we should do a one-year deal and look to revisit things once we get the season back underway."
Kyle Busch raced his way in the Championship 4 last November for the second straight year and came within a single position of winning his second consecutive Cup Series title when he finished second to Truex, Jr. in the season-finale event at Homestead, but feels his team out-performed the eventual champion.
"I definitely feel as though we matched them at Homestead," said Busch. "You know, I'd say that we were actually a little bit better than they were at Homestead, and that's what makes Homestead so painful are you can be a guy who wins 35 races out of the year, and then that 36th race you can finish second and lose the championship.
"I think if we would have been out front, if we would have been in front of the 78, if we would have reversed situations where we would have been where the 78 was, I feel like we would have drove away, and we won would have by four or five seconds. They wouldn't even have gotten as close as I got to them.
"You know, that was kind of painful for us. Feels like a letdown, and having the opportunity to be able to win that race, we were right there, we were real close, but wasn't able to get it done."
Among the last drivers to meet with the media on Tuesday was seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, the "old timer" at Hendrick Motorsports now that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has retired.
Johnson, now entering his 16th Cup season, is playing mentor to the three youngsters at Hendrick, including Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and rookie William Byron - all of who have dubbed him "Uncle Jimmie".
"I swear, in the blink of an eye, now I'm 'Grandpa.' It's gone fast," said Johnson. "I guess I'm going to have to put them in time-out or something, the way that's going. We definitely have a lot of fun together. It's so wild. I went from the young gun. ... and every time I saw my name written, it was 'rookie Jimmie Johnson.’"
Johnson came into last year’s media tour as the defending series champion, but wasn’t able to match his success in 2017. Now, despite a new crop of rookie on the way up the ladder and three years left on his contract with Hendrick, Johnson doesn’t feel any added pressure to score that record-breaking eighth Cup Series title.
"That doesn't change anything," said Johnson. "My desire to be competitive, my desire to be a champion, my desire to win races has never wavered. That's who I am. That's what I am.
"I'm excited to have all this new stuff going on around us--from rules, internally at Hendrick, the new car (Chevrolet Camaro), my teammates. ... I'm taking a notebook and pen everywhere I go, because everywhere I look, there's something to learn, and that's exciting."
The idea of mentoring the next generation of drivers brings things full-circle for Johnson, who was brought into the Hendrick organization by Jeff Gordon, who mentored Johnson’s early career and still co-owns his no. 48 Chevrolet with team owner Rick Hendrick.
"In my entire career, I always had a senior driver mentoring me. I think all the way back to my dirt bike days when I was eight, ten years old, having Rick Johnson there mentoring me along. Obviously most recently with Jeff Gordon. That's probably the most vivid recollection I have. I remember watching Jeff in moments, then telling him that I just learned something from him.
"I choose to see the positives that come with it. So, out of the gate, just knowing young guys and their raw desire to go fast, there's a lot that we'll be able to take away from there. And I think it's going to be important for me to understand their language and how they describe things, and then understand how to put that into how I describe a car, the sensations I'm looking for."
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