DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jet dryers, not stock cars, steamed across Daytona International Speedway all Friday morning, beating back moisture from overnight storms.
But NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams roared to life early in the afternoon, hitting the track for the second day of Preseason Thunder at Daytona – a three-day series test in preparation for the 53rd running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 20.
While the action heated up late on-track, plenty preceded it. Several drivers visited Daytona’s infield media center during the morning delay, followed by NASCAR President Mike Helton, Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton and Managing Director of Competition John Darby, who participated in an update session during Friday’s scheduled lunch break.
Among the topics: Helton confirmed that drivers now have the opportunity to pick the national series where they want to contend for a championship.
Expect drivers to continue to compete in all three national series, he said, but declaring a championship stake in one series means broadening opportunities for future stars.
“The hope for this is…there is a level of focus and a level of exposure offered to younger drivers who have personalities that deserve to get attention and be developed along the way [in the NASCAR Nationwide and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series],” Helton said.
Possible changes to the NASCAR points system also were a discussion topic. Helton said it’s an ongoing process, but an enjoyable one.
“The main goal is to get one that's just easier to understand and simpler, but you have to do that with credibility around the championship,” he said. “And we're getting a lot of great input from the drivers about the tweaks that would go along with something like that, so it's actually been fun to work on.”
Even more fun, Helton added, is participating in all the discussions.
“This is the 53rd-annual Daytona 500,” he said, “but after 30-some years in this business, I still get excited to pull inside this tunnel, and walking through the garage area and talking to the guys in the meetings, the owners and the drivers in particular and, quite frankly, a group of drivers that represent NASCAR's future. There's still a high level of energy and enthusiasm to get the season started but more importantly to do it in Daytona in the Speedweeks environment.”
Others are just as eager. Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet), who finished third in the 2010 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, said he’s ready to climb two more rungs in the final standings.
“The biggest thing is it's all about winning a championship at this point, nothing else,” he said. “Nothing else is good enough at this particular point in time. So it's great to have a good year, and we had a good year last year, but in the end it's all about taking home the one trophy that we don't have, and that's the championship trophy.”
Harvick knows how to win championships – he has two NASCAR Nationwide Series titles to his credit, as well as the 2007 Daytona 500 win. He’d gladly take another of the latter.
“It's just our biggest race and it leads off the year and the anticipation coming into the Daytona 500 every year is bigger than any other race times ten,” Harvick said. “So from a driver's standpoint, there's nothing like rolling to the green flag at the Daytona 500 because you have a whole winter of anticipation, you have your shiniest, best new car, everybody has got everything brand new and it's the best that anybody will be prepared for the whole season.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Steve Wallace, son of 1989 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Rusty Wallace. The younger Wallace is entering his fifth season as a full-time NASCAR Nationwide Series competitor for Rusty Wallace Racing, and thanks to a points agreement between his father and Penske Racing owner Roger Penske, Steve Wallace will become the second generation of his family to participate in the Daytona 500.
He’ll make his series debut in this year’s traditional season-opener.
“This is the Daytona 500,” Steve Wallace said. “I'm a rookie at this. This is my first race. I'm not coming down here to win the race. I'm coming down here to have a strong finish, run good, get some respect, don't crash the car. Finish the race. If we can do that, I feel like we'll have a shot at it.”
Tickets for the 53rd annual Daytona 500 and other Speedweeks 2011 events are available online at http://www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.
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