With the Daytona 500 less than a month away, NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway are hosting a media gathering through Wednesday. Here are 10 things we learned on Tuesday, in the first real interaction with drivers of the 2018 season:
▪ The Observer recently reported that a local group preparing an ownership bid to purchase the NFL’s Carolina Panthers was affiliated with two unnamed NASCAR drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was speculated to be one of the two, but said recently he did not have the financial resources to be part of that group. Another driver rumored to be involved, Kevin Harvick, said Tuesday he is also not part of that ownership group. Forbes estimates Harvick’s net worth to be near $70 million.
“I don’t have any interest in anything along the lines of Panthers ownership,” Harvick said. “Just from a financial component it’s way out of my league. We’ve been proud suite owners the last two or three years and will continue to support them.”
▪ Jimmie Johnson – who has an estimated net worth of $120 million – also said he is also not part of any group affiliated with buying the Panthers. “I don’t have enough money for that. My pockets aren’t that deep, I don’t think they can look at me,” Johnson said. “I would take a chance at it, though. Who wouldn’t?”
▪ Harvick also took time Tuesday – almost five minutes – to explain his proposal for NASCAR scheduling changes. Harvick said he’d like to see NASCAR change its playoff schedule to keep things exciting for fans, as well as rotate the end of season championship race to different tracks rather than always having it at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
▪ Kyle Busch made waves when he complained about NASCAR’s emphasis on marketing younger drivers, rather than supporting established veterans. “All you’re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on and choose as their favorite driver,” Busch said. “I think it’s stupid. I don’t know, I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal.”
▪ Denny Hamlin had a controversial end to the 2017 season, and it’s something fans are still talking about. After punting Chase Elliott into the wall at Martinsville to keep Elliott from his first career victory, Elliott reciprocated at Phoenix and kept Hamlin out of the Championship Four at Homestead. Asked if he is still frustrated about the way last season ended, Hamlin said, “I’ve had the craziest things happen, and I’ve had things like last year happen, so I’ve seen it all so nothing really surprises me.”
▪ Elliott, one of the upcoming stars in NASCAR, said that while he’s comfortable being among the new faces of the sport, he’s more concerned about winning races first. Elliott has yet to win a Cup Series race, although he has finished second seven times.
▪ The reigning Daytona 500 champion, Kurt Busch, said he feels more pressure to repeat at Daytona. The only active driver to win multiple Daytona 500s is Jimmie Johnson, who won in 2006 and 2013.
▪ William Byron, who will be a Cup Series rookie this season in the No. 24 car formerly driven by Jeff Gordon, said Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have both been a huge help for him behind the scenes so far. One way they’ve been assisting him? Trying to convince their former fans to support the 20-year-old filling their shoes.
▪ Kyle Larson, one of last season’s breakout stars, missed media day with an illness and also is not expected to appear on Wednesday, per sources.
▪ One potential dark horse for NASCAR fans to watch for this season? Aric Almirola, the man replacing Danica Patrick at Stewart-Haas Racing. Almirola will be in his best equipment ever, and he said Tuesday he feels like he can go into race weekends this year with a realistic chance at winning instead of just a shot at finishing in the top 10.