Preview the Road to Homestead-Miami Speedway
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch at the 12th Annual NASCAR Media Day (photo courtesy: Todd Warshaw, Getty Images Sport)
The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season and Road to Homestead-Miami Speedway kicked off with the Bud Shootout at Daytona that featured NASCAR stars who will be racing in Miami this November. For a 10th year running this fall, Homestead-Miami Speedway will host NASCAR’s 2011 Ford Championship Weekend, and some of the sport’s brightest stars were available to talk about the road to Miami for the Championship finale during NASCAR Media Day from Daytona.
Earnhardt Wins the Pole for the Daytona 500
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start his 400th career Sprint Cup Series race from the pole when he takes the green flag for next Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Earnhardt grabbed the top spot for the 53rd running of “The Great American Race” by turning a lap of 186.089 mph in Sunday’s qualifying session.
It was the 1oth pole of Earnhardt’s Sprint Cup Series career and his first in 23 attempts at Daytona.
The last driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
“The main thing it does for me is it takes a lot of pressure off for the qualifier,” Earnhardt said of Thursday’s Gatorade Duel at Daytona Twin 150 mile races. “I can just go out there and have fun and try to just have fun winning the race. I don't have to worry about where I need to finish to get a good starting spot of the 500. We can just go out and try to have fun and win that thing and try to bring all the hardware home this week."
With the number one starting spot wrapped up, can Earnhardt win his second career Daytona 500?
“About 30 of us can,” Earnhardt laughed. “Hopefully I make all the right moves, man. We’ve got a long week, but I’m really proud of the speed we had today and I want to thank everybody that worked on the car. It’s a really good race car.”
He’ll be joined on the front row by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who turned in a lap of 185.966 mph.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” said Gordon, who will make his first start with new crew chief Alan Gustafson in next Sunday’s race. “I know everybody talks about how hard you work, but these guys just pay so much attention to detail. And that’s why they’ve been on the front row here the last couple of years.”
Only the front row is locked in for Sunday’s race with the remainder of the 43-car field determined by qualifying speeds, finishing positions in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel at Daytona Twin 150-mile races, the Top 35 in last year’s owners’ points and provisionals.
Nineteen-year-old Trevor Bayne, who does have a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500, drove the Wood Brothers Racing Ford to the third fastest time.
“I can’t thank this Wood Brothers team enough and everybody at Ford Racing and Roush Yates for giving us a car like this to bring here,” said Bayne. “Obviously, we were praying a lot before we went out there, so we got a good run. The winds were kind of calm and I think this will show everybody that we’ve got an awesome race car and they can work with us in these twins coming into Thursday.”
Paul Menard, making his debut as a member of the Richard Childress Racing camp, qualified fourth with Clint Bowyer rounding out the top five.
Jeff Burton was sixth to give RCR three drivers in the first ten with Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart completing the top 10.
Chevrolet had eight positions inside the top ten.
Four other drivers earned a berth in the Daytona 500 after the session although starting spots will not be known until after Thursday’s races: Bill Elliott, Joe Nemechek, Travis Kvapil and Terry Labonte.
South Florida resident Juan Pablo Montoya returns for his fifth full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates in the No. 42 car with long-time partner Target. Montoya and the Brian Pattie led Target team capped off the 2010 campaign highlighted by an Aug. 8 victory at Watkins Glen, giving Target their first NSCS victory and the second consecutive season that both Montoya and Target have added to their list of accomplishments together (becoming the first foreign-born driver to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2009 which will again culminate at Homestead-Miami Speedway).
In order for Montoya to make the Chase this year, he realizes that consistency is key.
“We’ve got to run when we can run good, and when we can’t make sure we bring the car home. I think everybody’s mind is we’ve got to finish the race and score the points.”
Montoya’s teammate, Jamie McMurray returns to Speedweeks and the Shootout as the defending Daytona 500 champion where he landed his biggest career win last February. It's been nearly a year now but Jamie McMurray's win in the 2010 Daytona 500 still burns brightly in the driver's mind.
McMurray's emotional victory in last season's edition of "The Great American Race" is still one of, if not the biggest, highlights of his career. Rolling onto the grounds for this year's kick-off of Speedweeks 2011 and witnessing the photos and other artifacts commemorating the victory triggered more memories for McMurray
"When I think about the Daytona 500, I think about my favorite picture from that," McMurray said. "It's after I ran up and I got the flag and I ran back down the racetrack. I patted like where it said 'Daytona 500'. I remember telling someone the next day; I want to get a picture of that. That's like a memory I'll never forget.
"When I come back, I see they use that picture on different advertising. For me, that's the visual I get from the Daytona 500."
Martin Not Rushing Decision
Fan favorite Mark Martin is set for the 2011 season back behind the wheel of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 GoDaddy.com car. But beyond that, Martin's not interested in discussing his future plans.
The veteran driver is concentrating on his third year with Hendrick and a run at a Sprint Cup Series championship and does not intend to look beyond the coming year at this point.
"I'm not talking about 2012 until I have something to talk about," Martin said. "I'm not worried about it. I am embracing 2011. I'm more excited than I can remember being to get back to the race track where there competitors are, where the fans are. This is the best part. I'm living the best part of my life right now."
After missing the Chase last year Martin is committed to returning to both the playoffs this season as well as victory lane. He'll be paired up with new crew chief Lance McGrew in the aftermath of team owner Rick Hendrick's personnel shake-up at the end of last season and is looking forward to the opportunity.
"Lance and I have actually worked together in the past so this is going to be a great year working together," Martin said.
New Challenges Ahead for Johnson
Despite the media making him the choice for this year's Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie Johnson knows winning a sixth straight title will be far from easy.
The competition level has increased again among his competitors according to Johnson who also realizes that personnel changes inside Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 48 team will have an impact on performance.
"As far as inside the shop and the guys working on the cars, yes," Johnson said of the returning crew that will prepare the No. 48 Chevrolets again this season.
But on pit road things will have a different look in 2011
"Our over-the-wall crew is going to be much different. We’re still trying to sort everything out on that side. We’re in a very fortunate situation where we are making big changes. A very young crop of guys coming along and a situation where guys are earning their way on to the team and competing for. We’ve had a series of competitions and tests to see who is the fastest. That’s one aspect. Who can withstand the pressure?"
All four Hendrick Cup entries recently took part in a pit stop session at Charlotte Motor Speedway to fine-tune the mechanics of the over the wall crews prior to the start of the season.
"We had all four cars at Charlotte doing live pit stops to see," Johnson said. "We put a lot of pressure on them to see if somebody was better. So we’re still in the process, Chad may have made some decisions. I was there at that test with those guys last week and I haven’t heard the final roster. From that what I saw a very, very strong first and second string of guys. That’s our plan, to make sure we have depth and if someone is hurt or having a bad day we can make changes and not lose anything on pit road."
Budweiser to Roast Harvick
Budweiser will be hosting a roast for its newest driver, Kevin Harvick, on Tuesday in Daytona Beach.
Among the guests who will help roast Harvick will be Mike Dillon, Ron Hornaday and his wife, DeLana.
“I’m pretty much going into it with the fact knowing I’m pretty much going to get slammed," Harvick said. "I know better than to completely demolish my wife. She’s probably going to get away with a lot more than the rest of them. Mike Dillon I have no worries about whatsoever because I have the ultimate story on him. I think Hornaday is probably the one that worries me the most to be honest with you.”
Busch Looking to Save on Gas
Kurt Busch visited the Shell-Pennzoil headquarters last week in Houston, Texas as he gears up for his first year behind the wheel of the No. 22 Dodge.
Busch not only got the "101" about the company, but he also learned about a new promotion that will happen at Shell stations if he can reach Victory Lane.
"When I win now, if you have a Shell Gas Saver card from Shell, you save twenty-two cents a gallon on Wednesday at the pump," Busch said. "This is a huge promotion that not just NASCAR fans will see, but any person that goes to a Shell station to fuel up."
Five-time reigning Champion Johnson and the rest of the Sprint Cup field will officially begin the pursuit for fall glory in Miami in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20 (1 p.m. EST, FOX TV) at Daytona International Speedway. In the end, all three of NASCAR’s premier racing series—the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series—will crown Champions during Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 18-20) for the 10th consecutive year. For ticket information, stay tuned to HomesteadMiamiSpeedway.com or call toll free (866) 409-RACE.
MotorRacingNetwork.com contributed to this report.