New guys get plenty of attention, and Danica makes some news.
DAYTONA BEACH — For the regulars, it was just another gathering. A mid-Speedweeks opportunity to chat with any and all NASCAR drivers.
But Media Day isn’t really about the regulars. It’s largely a service for the once-a-year print media to gather info for the Daytona 500 in particular and the 2018 season in general. And for the TV affiliates to bankroll video interviews for the coming days.
“The team has been working hard all winter. We have some great cars and we’re ready to get started,” said … well … just about everyone.
While crowds were thick around the “new guys” during their respective time slots, NASCAR’s 2018 Media Day, at the Speedway’s 500 Club, was also notable for who wasn’t there — Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“He left a huge mark on the sport, and continues to influence the sport in a big way,” said Alex Bowman, one of those new guys, who just so happens to be sitting in Junior’s old No. 88 seat. And who, by the way, will start up front for Thursday’s first 150-mile qualifying race, as well as Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Among the other topics: What will be happening in Bowman’s rear-view mirror? That’s an immediate concern, and not just for Bowman, but for anyone planning to watch Thursday’s two qualifying races (“Can Am Duels” is the officially licensed name, though old-schoolers still hang onto “The Twins” label).
The Thursday qualifiers have become twin relics from another era. They still officially set the full lineup for the 500, but until this year, they also carried an axe — there were always some teams, and sometimes a lot of teams, that finished poorly on Thursday and didn’t even make the field for the 500.
But this year, only 40 cars are here, and with 40 available starting spots for “The Great American Race,” the Daytona 500 will be an all-skate. So Thursday’s races, in an effort to preserve equipment, could become single-file parades like much last Sunday’s Clash. Or so says conventional wisdom.
“Points are points. They count as much now as they do at the end of the season,” said Joey Logano.
“I think everybody understands you need to gather as many points as you can, right off the bat,” said Kevin Harvick.
Ah, points. As in bonus points. With the arrival of “stage racing” last year and the accompanying bonus points, NASCAR included bonus points for the Daytona Duels. Each winner gets 10 points, each runner-up gets 9, on down to 1 point for 10th place. Throughout last season, Martin Truex stockpiled so many bonus points, they helped carry him to the eventual championship.
Championships, and the way in which they’re won, get everyone’s attention.
“Well, yeah,” said Brad Keselowski, who won last Sunday’s Clash. “Obviously, you don’t want to wreck your Daytona 500 car. But there’s also points on the line. You don’t want to leave those on the table, anytime. I would suspect you will still see guys racing pretty hard.”
Keselowski also suspects cooler nighttime temps will play a role in changing the complexion. The warm weather for the Clash made for a slicker track, and combined with ill-handling race cars, single-file calm ruled the day.
The cooler weather, Keselowski said, “will put less emphasis on handling.”
“When there’s less emphasis on handling, the cars tend to run more side by side.”
As for the proverbial elephant that actually wasn’t in the room, Jimmie Johnson laughed at his theoretical life without Junior Earnhardt.
“I probably had more text messages from him than I did when he was here. I haven't felt his departure yet,” Johnson joked.
Looking ahead to next year’s Media Day, a list of the departed will include Danica Patrick, a star of several of these gatherings. She drew a crowd again Wednesday, to yet again discuss Sunday’s Daytona 500, which will be her final NASCAR race, as well as May’s Indy 500, which she says will be her final race of any kind.
Along the way, she actually made some news, which is ironically quite rare on Media Day.
Yes, she told ESPN prior to her group interview session, new romantic interest Aaron Rodgers will attend Sunday’s Daytona 500. There's been a lot of talk lately about NASCAR recently losing star power, but with Rodgers and honorary pace-car driver Peyton Manning on property, the 500’s profile gets a positive hit.
Also, in lesser news from a celebrity standpoint, but big news on the other side of the racing fence — IndyCar — Danica confirmed she’ll race at Indy for Ed Carpenter Racing.
But she didn’t mean to do that. A splashier announcement is surely forthcoming, but Danica let it slip while answering a generic question about Indy. She then asked, “Did I just say that out loud?”
After softly cussing herself, she said, “I’ve never done that in my career.”