With new crew chief, JR Motorsports driver looks to defend 2014 Daytona win Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As last year's runner-up in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Regan Smith has only one possible spot to move up the pecking order in the season-long standings. He'll make that effort by working with new crew chief Jason Burdett, starting a communication process that is more personal than one might think. "We go to the movies, we go to dinner … no, I'm just messing with you," Smith said during a playful moment at last week's NASCAR Media Day. "We skip through the park together. In all seriousness, we've spent quite a bit of time together just at the shop." The imagery, which could've been plucked from an online dating commercial, doesn't quite capture the early semblances of team chemistry for the JR Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet group. But at the same time, Smith said the getting-to-know-you phase has been an important step in moving forward. "I think the season holds some change," Smith said. "New crew chief, some new guys coming in. We kept most of our team intact other than the crew chief position, so that's going to be a good thing. I think it holds a strong year and a solid year that needs to be stronger than last year was. That means only one position that we can go from where we were." The 31-year-old veteran's journey begins with Saturday's season-opening Alert Today Florida 300 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1) at Daytona International Speedway, where Smith is the defending race winner. It marks his third year with JRM, which ran 1-2 in the final XFINITY standings last season, with rookie Chase Elliott hoisting the series title. The opening win wound up being the No. 7 team's only victory in 2014, prompting JR Motorsports to shuffle the crew chief order, replacing Ryan Pemberton with Burdett, who boasts a history of working on championship-level Sprint Cup Series teams. Though the NASCAR-mandated ban on testing has limited some of the time it takes for a team to become a more cohesive group, Smith said he has little concern about putting the pairing into action for the 33-race long haul. "Our relationship was good before he came to work there, but it's gotten better since he's come to JR Motorsports," Smith said. "The more I've been around him and seen how he acts with the guys, how he handles the guys, how the guys act with him -- it's gotten me more and more excited about getting down here and just getting everything started." Without testing, Smith has had plenty of off-track developments to keep him busy in the offseason. His wife, Megan, is expecting the couple's first child -- a boy -- any day now. For a man who finds comfort driving cars at rapid rate of speed, Smith described the couple's experience at a birthing class with one word -- "terrifying." "I walked out of there, and I'm not going to lie, I got a beer almost immediately," Smith said. "Outside of that, it was good." The other major life adventure of the offseason involved driving of a different sort, a nearly 1,600-mile road trip to Colorado for Thanksgiving with his team boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr. After forging through the night, rain and fog to help move a truck to Smith's Rocky Mountain home, it left Smith with a better appreciation for their relationship -- not to mention a better impersonation of Earnhardt's trademark North Carolina twang. "I feel like we know quite a bit about each other, just as friends," Smith said. "Yeah, he's a boss, but he's a friend, too. Fortunate to have that situation." MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news PLAY: Sign up for Fantasy Live WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView today FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Technology advancement demands more driver precision Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live " Vote: Ultimate Daytona Challenge DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR's new pit-road officiating technology received a much-anticipated preseason shakedown Saturday night in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition. The audition gave NASCAR officials more experience with the system, but teams, drivers and pit crews also got a sample of how it operated in race conditions without points on the line. PHOTOS: Inside the new pit road technology The system passed its preliminary test without major issue Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, with no noticeable glitches and no dramatic uptick in violations. It marked the next step in its rollout, heading toward its full-fledged debut in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' biggest race, the Feb. 22 Daytona 500 (1 p.m. ET, FOX) Saturday night's outcome was tempered somewhat by the uniqueness of the invitational race, with only a 75-lap distance as a sample size. The Sprint Unlimited also featured a smaller field of 25 vs. the traditional 43, making wholesale trips to pit road a less crowded proposition. A rash of caution periods and red flags for crashes also took the prospects of testing the system with green-flag pit stops en masse out of the equation. Matt Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota team managed to avoid not only the carnage of wrecks, but also the watchful eye of the new pit road officiating process. Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth's crew chief, said an offseason walk-through of the technology at the NASCAR Research and Development Center helped prime teams for the road ahead. "It's the first race out," Ratcliff said after the Victory Lane celebration. "We didn't make many competitive pit stops tonight. But all in all, I think our teams did well. I think they're as prepared as anyone is going to be. We'll see that Thursday and then Sunday again. But our pit crew coaches and our pit crew department has put a lot of effort, as well as every individual guy, understanding how much more precise that system's going to be compared to what it's been in the past." MORE: New pit road technology at the 'tip of the spear' By race's end, NASCAR's stat sheet showed 11 pit-road infractions in the 75-lap race. Six of those violations fell under the heading of entering pit road while it was closed, a category that isn't monitored by the new technology. Three teams were docked for having too many crewmembers over the wall, and one each for crewmembers over the wall too soon or a driver passing through more than three pit boxes on entry or exit. From a driver's perspective, the technology advancement demands more precision as well, but early on, defending Sprint Cup champ Kevin Harvick was among those leaving their approach unaltered. "That doesn't really change anything for me," said Harvick, a three-time Unlimited winner who wound up 11th Saturday night. "I think as you look at the things that happen, on and off pit road you have to just do what you normally do. Driving in and out of three boxes in or out, or the guys jumping over the wall is going to be the hardest thing. There is no hiding from the new pit road penalties." The new system uses 45 high-definition cameras at every Sprint Cup track, recording and feeding video of every pit stall to a trackside hauler, where eight NASCAR officials monitor and rule on pit stops at a double-time rate of roughly eight seconds per car. The process, rigorously checked during the late stages of 2014 and with file footage in the offseason, was also in place for testing during the IMSA TUDOR United SportsCar Championship opener, the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Saturday marked the system's first real-time application under the NASCAR umbrella. While Unlimited runner-up Martin Truex Jr. said he was cognizant of the technology as he made his first pit stops of the season, the system didn't play much factor for him because of the 2.5-mile track's spacious pit stalls. When the Sprint Cup schedule shifts to a tighter layout, though, he said the technology has the potential to be more exacting. "Honestly, I was more concerned before I got in the car than when I came down pit road," Truex said. "Everything felt exactly the same to me. There are pretty big pit boxes here, so pretty easy to not drive through more than three. I pretty much took my normal entry, and at the last minute was like, 'OK, that was only one box,' so it's not really something to worry about here, I don't think. There's other places it'll come into play. I think the biggest deal is just the pit crew guys getting used to it." MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news PLAY: Sign up for Fantasy Live WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView today FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Veteran won Sprint Unlimited, posted strong time in qualifying Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live " Vote: Ultimate Daytona Challenge DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – He won the Sprint Unlimited and posted the fourth fastest time in the final round of qualifying for Sunday’s Daytona 500 (which became the third fastest in the final round after teammate Denny Hamlin's time was disallowed). Matt Kenseth is looking more like the driver that won seven times in 2013 and less like the one who went winless last season. But there's a long way to go between qualifying for the 500 and taking the green flag in the season-opening race. Three more practice sessions (two on Wednesday and another on Thursday) are on tap, and that's just before this week's Budweiser Duel qualifying races on Thursday night. There are three more practices after the duels. "We got through the first two processes and now we need to get through the (qualifying race) with a good finish and get ready for Sunday," Kenseth said after locking in the No. 2 starting spot for Thursday's opening 60-lap, 150-mile race. "I feel like all our (cars) have been real competitive since we got here – we've got a lot of speed and that's encouraging, but it's speedway racing and anything can happen." Kenseth's No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing entry will start alongside Daytona 500 pole winner Jeff Gordon in the opening duel. Help from his teammates was crucial during Sunday's qualifying, but Kenseth will have no such assistance come Thursday. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin will be lining up in the second qualifier, based on the odd-even pairing to set the two fields. Those three rolled into Daytona with new crew chiefs in tow – Darian Grubb with Edwards, Adam Stevens with Busch and Dave Rogers with Hamlin. Kenseth touched down with Jason Ratcliff, just as he did last year. Team owner Joe Gibbs said there no reason to pull the plug on the No. 20 pairing. "There was no thought there," he said. "We really felt like this is one team we wanted to leave matched up. "Each one of those other situations was a little bit different." Kenseth didn't make it to the winner's circle last year in a points-paying event, but Ratcliff doesn't sound too disappointed when ask about the results. "We had a great season. When you look at our overall performance, our top 10s, top fives … we had a lot of good opportunities," he said. "Having two years under out belt, I think it's a no-brainer. We're looking forward to a remarkable year." How a team fares here at Daytona may set the tone for the season, but it doesn't set the table. Restrictor-place races are few and far between on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. It's the intermediate tracks that are the meat and potatoes. And while history shows that Daytona 500 winners rarely go on to win the championship, that nugget doesn't take any of the shine off winning the series biggest race. Kenseth has been to Victory Lane here twice in the 500, both times while with Roush Fenway Racing. JGR drivers have won here once, and that was back in '93 with NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett driving. "We've been here 24 years. We've won once," Gibbs said. "It's extremely hard. … For us it has been gut‑wrenching. I can't tell you how many times we've been disappointed walking away from here." Getting a win in the Unlimited race, a non-points event, was big, Kenseth said, but it also afforded the team the opportunity to understand a few things that might be of use in the coming days. "I felt like we learned some things about the race car, the track and the tires a little bit," he said. "that will apply Thursday night. This is the only shot at it (in race conditions). "It's a great start. Hopefully we can keep the momentum for the rest of the week." MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news PLAY: Sign up for Fantasy Live WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView today FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
This week's host, Matthew Strickert takes you on a stroll of the NASCAR XFINITY Series garage at a sunny, but chilly Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Take a moving look back at the NASCAR career of Jason Leffler.
The cars and stars of the NASCAR XFINITY Series come out to welcome XFINITY to GarageCam and give host Matthew Dillner grief about his green jacket.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief plans to engineer successful season
Miss the Budweiser Duels? Nick Duncan reports all you need to know from Thursday night's qualifying races for the DAYTONA 500.
'Precise' pit road system will take some getting used to Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live " Vote: Ultimate Daytona Moment RELATED: NASCAR bulletin details 2015 pit road updates NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crew chiefs are anticipating a rise in the number of pit road infractions when the 2015 season gets underway later this month, but say they expect those totals to decrease as teams become more comfortable with the new technology used to police pit road. Until this year, officials located on pit road monitored stops. Now those activities will be captured on video and streamed to a central location where eight officials will review each stop and rule on possible infractions. "There's going to be a fair share of penalties, just because the system is so much more precise," said Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for the No. 20 team of Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth . "I think teams are going to be cutting it really close, closer than they were before in trying to find where the edge is within the new officiating system. "But it's going to be spot-on. When it says you're wrong, you're wrong." Violations such as excessive speed on pit road and pulling up to pit (passing a vehicle on the inside) will continue to be handled by officials in the scoring tower. Infractions such as too many crewmembers in contact with the pit service area, crewmembers over the wall too soon and pitting outside the assigned pit box will be policed using the new video system technology. NASCAR officials met with pit crew coaches and crew chiefs during the offseason to help familiarize them with the changes. Part of the process included detailing which infractions were the most common from the previous year. Pitting before pit road is open (394 violations) and too fast on pit road (133 violations) occurred the most often. Because those will continue to be monitored by officials in the control tower, those numbers aren't expected to increase dramatically One of the biggest concerns for teams is the penalty for crewmembers over the wall too soon. Last season, the infraction was called only 23 times, in part because it's a judgment call made by officials who often don't have the best view of exactly where a car is located when crewmen cross the pit wall. PHOTOS: Go inside the new pit road technology Crewmen are not allowed to cross the pit wall until their driver is within two pit boxes of his pit stall. The driver whose team violates the rule must serve a pass-thru penalty (when the infraction occurs under green-flag conditions) or restart at the tail end of the field (when it takes place under yellow). According to results obtained while testing the new system during the final 10 races of 2014, the numbers for that particular violation would have more than tripled. "That's a concern for a lot of guys," said Todd Gordon, crew chief for No. 22 Team Penske driver Joey Logano . "The reason we didn't have a lot of calls for off the wall too soon (before) is because for an official to look back 60 feet and make a call on whether the car is six inches short of the line, a foot short or on the line, it's so hard for him to do that they would never make it. So a guy could leave a little bit early. "But that's the same vision that our crewmembers have to have to know when that car gets to that line. The computers (video) will see that a lot better than the jackman will." And because the jackman is the first crewman over the wall, Gordon said the onus would be on him to make sure he times his departure just right. "He's the first guy the car gets to," he said. "The rear guys come behind the car so they're waiting for the car to get by; he's the first guy in line. Those guys have worked pretty hard in how to be explosive off the wall and speed up their time from the wall to outside the car. That's a piece that's probably become more important with this new enforcement." Faster pit stops can improve a driver's track position, and teams are always searching for ways to get their driver on and off pit road in the least amount of time. Improvements in equipment and more athletic crewmen have sped up the pace tremendously in recent years to the point where a 14-second stop is now considered average. "We know how important pit road is to results on the race track," said Paul Wolfe, crew chief for the No. 2 team of Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski . "We like to pass cars on pit road if we can, so knowing that we're going to have equal rules to the guy next to us, that's exciting for a competitor to know that if we work hard and do our part that we can be rewarded for it." Rodney Childers, who heads up the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team of driver Kevin Harvick , said he believes having veteran personnel going over the wall will make a difference. "I think having experienced guys that have been on pit road a long time, that probably helps you out because they're more relaxed, more comfortable and feel like they can jump off the wall later and still make up for it," he said. One thing the new system likely won't deter is the dispute that often ensues between crew chiefs and officials when a violation is called. "I think the argument is still going to be there," Ratcliff said. "You know how that is. "We're still going to want to see it firsthand. … I think as we see where we made the mistakes and see how it's going to work and how the system is operating differently than it has in the past, we'll get a good feel for it and be able to adjust accordingly." FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Can the JR Motorsports driver hold off teammate Chase Elliott this season? RELATED: Complete schedule for driver previews Team: JR Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet Rank in final 2014 standings: Second Wins: 1 (Daytona in February) Strides: In spite of a crew chief change that saw Ryan Pemberton take over for Greg Ives (who joined JRM teammate Chase Elliott ) prior to the start of the season, Smith wasted no time in getting into Victory Lane, winning the series' first race at Daytona. Although it was his lone win for the year, Smith reeled off 13 consecutive top-10s to open the season, led the points for 11 weeks and recorded a career-best second-place points finish. "I thought that we got the speed where we needed it at the end of the year," Smith said. "We struggled a little bit with communication early on. Once we learned each other as a group and got those things figured out, the speed started coming back to us." Setbacks: Smith had only two finishes outside the top 20 and his team appeared competitive in most areas and at most venues. However he was unable to close the gap on his teammate down the stretch, finishing ahead of Elliott in just two of the final 10 races. "We had some opportunities that we missed to really make things tighter when it came down to the end and put some pressure on Chase at the end of the year," he said. "To his credit he didn't falter anywhere. There were a lot of points in the season where people said 'He's a rookie; he's going to make a mistake here or there or something's going to happen’ and he didn't. "He drove like a veteran and it was great for him and great for JR Motorsports to see that. But I think for the No. 7 car, we're going to think about the what-ifs. More importantly, what can we do going into (2015) take care of the what-ifs to make sure they don't happen again." Quoteworthy: "There were times when I was frustrated as a driver and I think it showed up on the track because of how I was driving. You've got to be careful not to let that happen." What's next: With Pemberton moving back into his role as director of competition for JRM, Smith will be working with Jason Burdett, his third crew chief in three years. Burdett previously worked at Hendrick Motorsports , and served as car chief for Jimmie Johnson ('02), Jeff Gordon ('08-10) and Dale Earnhardt Jr . ('11-14). "We can all work on a lot of areas, myself included," Smith said. "Restarts and qualifying for me have just been atrocious for the past two years. I can't really highlight why. I think this offseason is going to be really important to highlight why and figure that out. Because in order to contend and get the track position and the clean air that we really need, those two things have to improve." FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule