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
Scoring will mirror system used for drivers for all three national series
Get a breakdown of how the full 43-car field fared in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live 1. Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Finding his way to clear air on the race's final restart, Johnson got all the encouragement he needed over the team's in-car radio: "Leg it, baby. Leg it." The six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion did, pulling away to his fourth victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the 71st of his career in NASCAR's top series. Sign up for Scanner today to hear in-car audio. " Sign up for Scanner today to hear in-car audio 2. Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. The defending Sprint Cup champion had to carve his way from the back of the field after suffering engine failure during Saturday practice, but was perched atop the leaderboard by the 87th lap in the 325-lap distance. Harvick wound up leading a race-high 116 laps in recording his second runner-up finish in two races thus far in 2015. " WATCH: Johnson holds off Harvick for the win 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Junior has opened the season by going 2-for-2 in posting third-place finishes despite sustaining front-end damage Sunday when he ran into a piece of debris in the late going. Though he consistently was near the front of the pack, Earnhardt led just one lap all afternoon. " WATCH: Dale Jr.: Crew chief Ives is 'a pretty good cheerleader' 4. Joey Logano, No. 22 Ford, Team Penske. The Daytona 500 champ continued his hot streak by winning the Coors Light Pole Award on Friday. Though he lacked the power to mount a challenge over the final green-flag run, Logano will enter next Sunday's Kobalt 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as the Sprint Cup points leader. " WATCH: Out Front with Miss Coors Light 5. Matt Kenseth, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. The JGR driver -- who led 10 laps Sunday and lined up second for the final restart -- watched his losing skid stretch to 46 races (dating back to 2013) after a slight fade just before the checkered flag. 6. Martin Truex Jr., No. 78 Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing. The modest rejuvenation continues for Truex and the Colorado-based team owned by Barney Visser. The Furniture Row bunch registered just five top-10 finishes in all 36 races last year; two races into 2015, Truex and Co. already have a pair of single-digit results. " MORE: Truex looks to put 2014 woes behind him 7. AJ Allmendinger, No. 47 Chevrolet, JTG-Daugherty Racing. A strong finish on an intermediate track helped lift the spirits of the single-car organization, which qualified for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs for the first time last year. After just two races, Allmendinger is slotted in a tie for eighth in the series standings. " MORE: Chase Grid after two races 8. Brett Moffitt, No. 55 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing. The former NASCAR Next driver needed to receive the free pass two times to do it, but Moffitt closed the deal on the lead lap on a day of firsts for his career-best finish in just his eighth Sprint Cup start. Brian Vickers is scheduled to return to MWR's No. 55 ride next weekend at Las Vegas. 9. Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford, Team Penske. The 2012 champion had hopes for a top-five finish, but his aspirations were also tempered with temporary resignation over what he thought could have been a subpar 15th-place result. "We were just kind of up and down and floating all day long," Keselowski said after settling for somewhere in the middle of his expectations in ninth place. 10. Ryan Newman, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. Newman appeared sunk after absorbing significant damage in a four-car crash on Lap 257, but hard work from his RCR crew in making repairs buoyed Newman to a surprising top-10. 11. Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports. After opening up 2014 with patchwork finishes of 39th, 15th, 25th, third and 43rd, Almirola has some consistency to crow about this season. "That's a big head start from last year!" Almirola tweeted after his second straight top-15 finish pushed him into a tie for eighth in Sprint Cup points . " MORE: Follow drivers on Social Drive 12. Carl Edwards, No. 19 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. Edwards was the beneficiary of the race's next-to-last yellow flag, helping him recover from a seemingly disastrous flat tire in the 274th lap for a lead-lap finish. 13. Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. The Wisconsin native couldn't shake the unluckiest of numbers, starting and finishing 13th as the final driver on the lead lap. 14. Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. The track that produced Kahne's last-ditch clincher into the Chase field last September wasn't so kind this time around. A pit-road penalty for a rolling-tire infraction in the 293rd lap forced the Hendrick Motorsports driver to make a pass-through on pit lane during green-flag conditions. 15. Casey Mears, No. 13 Chevrolet, Germain Racing. Sunday's top-15 finish wasn't quite the windfall the Germain team received from Mears' sixth-place run in the Daytona 500, but the solid day kept its driver in the same position in Sprint Cup points -- sixth. 16. Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Atlanta provided the backdrop for Patrick's career-best Sprint Cup finish of sixth place last season. While 16th place marked a slip in performance, the effort -- coupled with 21st place the previous week at Daytona -- launched Patrick into the final spot on the provisional Chase grid. 17. Regan Smith, No. 41 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Smith's second start as a substitute for suspended Kurt Busch had nearly the same result as the first, just one spot lower than his 16th place in the Daytona 500. The degree of difficulty may have been greater at Atlanta, though, after Smith's No. 41 was crumpled in a multicar fracas 20 laps from the end. " WATCH: Big wreck brings out the red flag 18. David Ragan, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. Ragan pushed the No. 18 car up into the top five in the early stages of his first start as a fill-in for injured Kyle Busch, but said he was "a little timid" in making needed adjustments as the 500-miler went on. "I felt like we had a good, solid top-10 car and things just didn't shake out," Ragan said. 19. Trevor Bayne, No. 6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. Bayne was at the head of the Roush Fenway class at Atlanta, but frustrated in finishing two laps down. The midpack result left him hoping to see the team's determination rewarded soon. "I see a lot of people trying to work together and that's where it starts," Bayne said. "We obviously haven't seen any results as far as speed is concerned." 20. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 Chevrolet, HScott Motorsports. Allgaier made the most of his survival instinct after two instances of evasive action in the race's late stages. The second-year driver brushed the wall avoiding the Lap 257 pile-up that snared four cars, then dipped to the apron to dodge the Lap 305 snarl that grabbed seven more competitors. 21. Sam Hornish Jr., No. 9 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports. Inopportune timing put Hornish in the path of debris from Austin Dillon's blown tire in the 60th lap. Damage to the front end jolted the grille and left the RPM No. 9 crew fighting an uphill battle for most of the race; his own flat tire and a later brush with the wall only compounded the trouble. 22. David Gilliland, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports. Gilliland pressed on after a bump from behind in the four-car crash on the 257th lap. He also stayed on the track during the race's fourth yellow flag to lead a lap for the first time at Atlanta since March 2010. 23. Alex Bowman, No. 7 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing. After failing to qualify for the season-opening Daytona 500, Bowman opened his season at Atlanta as one of the biggest movers in a race filled with them. The second-year Sprint Cup driver gained 19 spots from his starting position. 24. Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing. Bowyer gained track position by staying on the track late in the race, but his day went from sour to downright acidic in a hurry. An engine issue developed with around 35 laps left, just before the race's final crash engulfed him with 20 to go. 25. Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. The Biff fought an ill-handling car most of the day, but lost the most ground when he overcooked his entry into Turn 3 on the race's next-to-last restart, igniting the race's biggest crash. 26. Kyle Larson, No. 42 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing. The site of an eighth-place finish last season held much higher promise for 2014's Sunoco Rookie of the Year, but sustaining plenty of contact in the race's biggest crash near the finish prompted Larson to tweet afterward: "Such a frustrating race. Top 5 car but had no luck." " MORE: Follow drivers on Social Drive 27. Michael McDowell, No. 95 Ford, Leavine Family Racing. The small, family-owned team found some solace in McDowell's best result in five career starts at Atlanta, marking the first time he was running at the finish at the 1.54-mile venue. 28. Brendan Gaughan, No. 62 Chevrolet, Premium Motorsports. The Jay Robinson-owned start-up team recovered after failing to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Brian Scott. It marked the occasion of Gaughan's first Sprint Cup start since August 2013. 29. Michael Annett, No. 33 Chevrolet, Circle Sport Racing. Annett and Co. struck an 11th-hour deal to jump in the Joe Falk-owned ride after his regular HScott Motorsports No. 46 ride missed out on Coors Light Pole Qualifying. The last-minute move kept his goal of a complete Sprint Cup season alive. 30. Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart was one of several drivers who started near the back of the pack after issues clearing Friday's pre-qualifying inspection. Smoke grappled with handling woes for much of the race, but matters got worse with involvement in the event's final multicar crash. 31. Mike Bliss, No. 32 Ford, GoFAS Racing. The 49-year-old veteran stayed on the track during a pair of early caution periods to pace two laps, marking his first lap led in the Sprint Cup Series since March 4, 2012 (Phoenix). It also was the first time since August 27, 2005 (Bristol) that Bliss has led multiple laps in a Sprint Cup race. 32. Josh Wise, No. 98 Ford, Phil Parsons Racing. Wise was among the first bitten by the new pit road officiating system , incurring a Lap 28 penalty for crew members coming over the wall too soon. Though seven laps down, Wise managed his best finish in three career starts at Atlanta. 33. Joe Nemechek, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports. The man with the Front Row nickname made his first appearance in Front Row Motorsports equipment, but contact from Greg Biffle's spin left his car and hopes dented for his first Sprint Cup event of the year. 34. JJ Yeley, No. 23 Toyota, BK Racing. Slight damage from debris early in the race slowed Yeley, who managed to improve upon the 40th-place result from the season-opening Daytona 500. 35. Jeb Burton, No. 26 Toyota, BK Racing. As the only rookie in the 43-car field, Burton made his Sprint Cup debut, forging on after a mid-race scrape with the wall. 36. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. Stenhouse played the role of pinball in the race's biggest crash; though several cars were involved, the No. 17 was the only one unable to continue. 37. Cole Whitt, No. 35 Ford, Front Row Motorsports. An engine that would've made a 400-mile distance couldn't quite withstand the full 500, first dropping a cylinder before expiring altogether, dumping fluid on the track and causing the race's next-to-last caution period. 38. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin led twice for 14 laps, but found himself sideways in the middle of the track when he lost control on a late-race restart. Three more cars piled in, prompting Hamlin to offer sympathies: "I apologize to all those cars involved, but it's tough." " WATCH: Hamlin spins and collects several drivers 39. Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. A pair of rear tire troubles in rapid succession, both of which sprayed debris on the 1.54-mile track, derailed Dillon's day. The second instance, with the car already laboring from earlier damage, sent the RCR No. 3 off into the muddy infield and later behind the wall for extensive repairs. " WATCH: Dillon spins after cutting a tire 40. Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing. After starting third, Jamie Mac didn't have visions of finishing in the bottom five Sunday at Atlanta. The tangle that also thwarted three others when Denny Hamlin lost control took him by surprise: "I didn't see any of that coming," McMurray said. "That was kind of out of the blue." 41. Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. The four-time champion drew a Lap 24 tribute from the track with his car number blanketing the main scoring pylon early on, but enduring a crash for the second straight week has his final full Sprint Cup season off to a ragged start. Finishes of 33rd at Daytona and 41st at Atlanta have relegated Gordon to a tie for 35th place in the points standings. " WATCH: Big wreck brings out red flag 42. Ron Hornaday Jr., No. 30 Chevrolet, The Motorsports Group. After failing to qualify for the Daytona 500, the four-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion made his first Sprint Cup start since 2003 on Sunday. The Curtis Key-owned start-up team parked just past the halfway point at Atlanta with a rear gearing malfunction. 43. Landon Cassill, No. 40 Chevrolet, Hillman Smith Motorsports. Starting last, Cassill seemingly had nowhere to go but up at Atlanta. Instead, the 25-year-old driver stayed level as the race's first retiree for the second straight week, posting consecutive 43rd-place finishes after two engine failures to start the season. 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
Reacting to Atlanta, sanctioning body tweaks West Coast schedule
Junior's comeback season brought out the best of old and new The announcement of NASCAR's new points system dominated the preseason in 2014, and headlocks and brawls and go-for-broke racing dominated the end. But in between, the best story was the return of Dale Earnhardt Jr . The sport's biggest star turned in the most important season of his career. After a solid but winless 2013, his slide from the top of NASCAR's mountain had ended, and he needed to race his way back to the top. He did and then some. He won the wildest Daytona 500 anybody has ever seen, he won at Pocono twice, and he drove away to the checkered flag at Martinsville while everybody behind him beat-and-banged on each other. His four wins equaled his total from the previous nine seasons combined. He was nearly as entertaining off the track, as he joined Twitter and turned 140 characters into an art form. But more than the wins and the tweeting, Earnhardt's season thrilled Junior Nation because it signaled the return of the confident Dale Earnhardt Jr . In 2014, he lived and breathed the exuberance that first made him so popular and then disappeared when his career went into the toilet. Few public figures, in sports or anywhere else, are as transparent as Dale Jr. He opens his mouth and the truth comes out. If his mouth doesn't betray his true feelings, his body language does. He couldn't fake it if he tried. So even more important than the results is the manner in which he achieved them -- with a strutting, head-up, eyes forward, let's-do-this bravado, as opposed to the Dale Jr. who sulked around the garage from 2007-2011, looking at his feet, sure his car would stink before he even got in it. He lost his swagger and believed he would never find it again. And so he wallowed, year after frustrating year. Everyone had brilliant ideas about how to fix him except him. For Earnhardt, the difference between wanting to and doing is the difference between doubt and confidence, and for years he didn't believe in himself or in his cars. He looked at his race car and saw a plodding tank, and he looked in the mirror and saw a driver who couldn't drive it fast if it were a rocket ship. He fumbled through seasons like a man looking for clothes in a dark closet. He had no idea what he was pulling out, and he was stuck wearing it regardless. He tumbled to 25th in 2009 and 21st in 2010 and even those miserable stats only hint at how far he had fallen in his own head, from title contender to also-ran. He wondered if his career as a competitive driver was over. And then an amazing thing happened. Team owner Rick Hendrick gave him Steve Letarte as a crew chief before the 2011 season. Letarte arrived on Earnhardt Jr.'s porch an hour or so after getting the job. He had just finished a winless season as Jeff Gordon 's crew chief and wasn't overflowing with confidence either. Each needed to look the other in the eye and size him up. Are you going to take me back to where I belong? As Letarte entered Dale Jr.'s house, he immediately put his new driver at ease and started putting him back together again. Before they ever went to the track together, Letarte insisted on rules nobody had ever been able to enforce with Junior. Letarte told him to show up before practice to talk about the car and to stay afterward until Letarte didn't need him anymore. It sounded like drudgery to Junior. And the results were slow to come, at first. He hit everything but the scoring pylon that year in Speedweeks. Then he was slow after that. Before a race in Las Vegas, his confidence still shot, Junior forced himself to stay and listen to and talk with Letarte and the engineers. The next day, the car was as fast as any he had driven in years. From then through 2013, hints of the old Earnhardt came back. His average finish improved dramatically; it was a career best 10.9 in 2012, a far cry from his career worst in 2009 (23.2). But he visited Victory Lane just once in that stretch, in 2012. In 2013, only a blown engine in the first Chase race kept him out of title contention. He couldn't wait to start the 2014 season and immediately showed why. He drove a brilliant Daytona 500 , passing high and low and early and late and with speed and cunning. He spent most of the rest of the season at or near the top of the leaderboard. For the first time since 2004, he had a legit title chance. Those hopes evaporated with back-to-back finishes of 39th at Kansas and 20th at Charlotte in the 30th and 31st races of the season. He wound up eighth in points . But to measure him only by where he finished in points is to miss the point entirely. The way to measure the new (and getting older) Dale Jr. is against the old (and forever younger) Dale Jr. and the one in the middle. He no longer resembles the one in the middle. The new and old have a lot in common, and the key difference is this one has confidence based on wisdom and experience rather than the ignorance of youth. The highlight of Earnhardt's season came after his win at Martinsville. A win there yields an iconic grandfather clock trophy, which Earnhardt had coveted for as long as he could remember. For his Hendrick Motorsports team, it came within days of the 10-year anniversary of a Hendrick Motorsports team plane crash that killed 10 people, including Hendrick's brother, son and two nieces. Earnhardt climbed from his car in Victory Lane and unleashed an utterly captivating stream-of-consciousness interview soaked through with joy. He was out of breath when he started talking. Not from driving, he said, from celebrating. He bounced from the bucket-list delight of winning a clock to heartfelt empathy of the magnitude of winning at that place on that day. "I lost my daddy a long time ago and I know how hard that is," Junior said. "I can't imagine losing the magnitude of people Rick lost. My heart goes out to him during this weekend. And I love that his cars are good here and give him a victory. And this honors them." He talked afterward about putting the clock right by the front door of his house so everybody who came over would see it. When it chimes, it heralds a great win that capped an unforgettable comeback season. SUBSCRIBE NOW!
After successful debut, playoff system will get time to take root
Hendrick Motorsports driver talks offseason plans, 2015 goals RELATED: Subscribe to NASCAR Illustrated Kasey Kahne had an up-and-down 2014. The 34-year-old driver won for a third consecutive year at Hendrick Motorsports , notching the victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the penultimate race of NASCAR's regular season. That late win vaulted the No. 5 team into the Chase and ensured that all four of Hendrick's teams were in it. But Kahne and longtime crew chief Kenny Francis didn't consistently flash the speed that their fans have been accustomed to seeing. The rumor mill began churning with talk of Keith Rodden possibly leaving Chip Ganassi Racing and returning to HMS next year to lead Kahne's team. That move was confirmed shortly after Homestead, as was a new three-year-deal for Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports . NASCAR ILLUSTRATED: What do you have planned for the offseason, anything you're particularly looking forward to? KASEY KAHNE: I'm excited mainly just to have a little break. I need a break away from racing. Looking forward to going home for a few days back to Washington in Enumclaw, hitting a Seahawks game and then heading to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for a week to ski, snowmobile and shop. I'm looking forward to that. NI: Your Atlanta win was the high point of the season. How would you describe the relief of getting into the Chase? KAHNE: It was definitely a highlight as a team and stepping up and working together. Getting a win that night was really nice for us, nice to make the Chase and get in. But I think the win meant more than anything just to show that we're capable if we do things right. When we do things right, we're still capable and we have a lot to look forward to in the future. NI: What are your thoughts on the new Chase format now that you've been through it? KAHNE: It's been really interesting and I personally like it because both winning and consistent teams will advance. In each round, both have advanced, so to me it's kind of like the points system but it's also like a playoff. So I like that. And it's also put more pressure on the teams and drivers every single race, which has created more drama. The fighting, the running into each other, I think it's really made it more intense. It's actually been pretty damn exciting. NI: You and Russell Wilson raised $220,000 in two days during "The Drive" this summer. What does the future look like for the event? KAHNE: Russell's excited and I'm excited about our first tournament together and the first time we worked together on charity. We're gonna do it again next year and try to make it an annual deal. The golf tournament was great and the course and the people involved. We expect to grow it and want to work and make sure it's bigger and better each year. RELATED: Kahne, Super Bowl MVP team up for 'The Drive' NI: What specific areas of your team's performance need to be better in 2015? KAHNE: Really the first thing I look at is speed in practice, qualifying, race. We don't have those fast laps like we've always had in the past. We have to look at that; I have to look at that, we have to look at that as a team. Our pit stops have to be better. You can't lose spots every time off pit road and expect to do well in this series. It's way too competitive. I think both of those things and just the communication and working together, normal things that you have to have as a team. I just think we all need to get a little better at that. I think it will all take care of itself once we get the speed back, once we know we’re putting up fast laps whenever we're on the track. SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Bruce: Can SHR star join Johnson as drivers to defend title in Chase-era? Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live " Vote: Ultimate Daytona Challenge DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For the first time since he was suddenly thrust into NASCAR's premier series back in 2001, Kevin Harvick begins the new racing season wearing the title of defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Thus far the 39-year-old seems to wear it well. Whether it will wear on him, or his Stewart-Haas Racing team, remains one of many unanswered questions before the season gets underway. Defending a title is tricky business in NASCAR, made even more so with the arrival of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the subsequent re-tooling of the original 10-race format and most recently the tweaking of the subsequent retooling of the program. Format changes have been just one issue standing between drivers, teams and the title. Jeff Gordon, a four-time champ back in the pre-Chase days, has yet to celebrate a title won under the 10-race system . Thus he's had no Chase title to defend. Likewise, Matt Kenseth won the last outright " points " title, but so far has been unable to solve the riddle of the Chase despite his many attempts. Kurt Busch won the first title back in in the days of Chase 1.0, but has rarely been heard from since. Others were more fortunate. Tony Stewart was the first to show a team that could win straight up could also win when put into a 10-race showdown, winning a pre-Chase crown, then two more during seasons after the field was reset. Jimmie Johnson has often been lauded (cursed?) for he and his team's ability to dominate in the "postseason," and while it's a fact that all six of the Hendrick Motorsports driver's titles came after the arrival of the Chase, Johnson's No. 48 was no ugly duckling before that -- as his record shows. With Johnson winning so often, few others have had the opportunity to defend a championship, and none done so successfully. Can Harvick turn the tide? Stewart, who co-owns Harvick's SHR team, says teams can do two things after winning a title, either become complacent with what's been accomplished and ease off the throttle or continue to feed off the thrill of the battle and the success. One goal has been met, Harvick said, but others remain. Situations change. Rules change. Times change. Harvick, it appears, thrives on those changes. A former team owner himself, Harvick put away his Nationwide (now XFINITY) and Camping World Truck Series teams to focus on his own quest for a championship after the 2011 season. For the first time in his Sprint Cup career, he changed teams, moving from Richard Childress Racing to SHR before the start of 2014. His personal life has had major transformations as well, with the birth of a son and most recently a re-location to the Charlotte area. "In the end, we changed our whole life to try to accomplish everything that we did last year," Harvick said. "We were able to pull that off and in three years, basically, change everything that we have done. So, that's very rewarding for all the people … everybody who has been involved in it." While 25 teams will return to the track here this weekend at Daytona International Speedway for Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited (8:15 p.m. ET, FOX), the official start of the season begins next week with the season-opening Daytona 500, scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 22 (1 p.m. ET, FOX). The list of NASCAR premier series champions is a short one -- Harvick is just the 30th to wear the crown. It's more important that he got here, he said, than that it took him so long to finally arrive. "I think I respect it a lot more and understand how hard it is to get to this point and really know the work and effort that and how many people it takes to be a part of it," he said. That hard work and effort paid off. Now it's time to see if success is fleeting, or if the driver and team that ended 2014 on top can continue to be the best. FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Six-time series champion will be in New York City on Wednesday to promote the Chase RELATED: Play Perfect Chase Grid Challenge for chance at $100,000 prize MORE: Full rundown of where each driver will be for Chase Across North America Jimmie Johnson didn't compete in his foundation's triathlon Sunday morning, but that appears to be the only alteration to the schedule this week for the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Before leaving for New York City on Tuesday, Johnson said his team did find an issue that could have been related to how he felt following his eighth-place finish at Richmond International Raceway . "The team found an issue with the cooling system for my helmet," Johnson said in a Chicagoland pre-race team release. "Basically, it was blowing warm air. It's nice to have a good idea as to what went wrong and why I got so hot in the race car. It's a newer system that we've implemented, so we're just going back to our old faithful system that's worked for years and years. We should have the problem rectified." On Monday, Hendrick Motorsports officials said that Johnson was expected to fulfill his duties as one of 16 participants in this year's Chase Across North America that kicks off Wednesday. As part of the media tour promoting the 10-race Chase, Johnson is scheduled to be in New York City where he will appear on NBC's "Today" show, NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," the nationally syndicated talk show "Live! with Kelly and Michael" as well as "Power Lunch" on CNBC. The 38-year-old Johnson spent approximately 90 minutes in the infield care center at Richmond International Raceway following Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400, where he was treated for dehydration. Sunday, the health-conscious Johnson attended The Jimmie Johnson Foundation's latest wellness challenge, the Lake Davidson Sprint Triathlon. While he did not compete in the event, he was on hand to greet and mingle with the participants. Johnson, the defending Sprint Cup Series champion and a winner of three Sprint Cup races this year, finished eighth at Richmond. He climbed from his car on pit road without assistance, but was suffering cramps in his legs. "I sat in the car and was talking to my guys about the run and having a good race," Johnson said Saturday night after exiting the care center. "I started to cramp a little bit in my legs, so I figured I would just get out of the car and as I climbed out … the cramping got far worse. "Then standing outside the car I got kind of dizzy so I wanted to sit down. Once I sat down the cramping got worse." Each of the remaining 15 Chase drivers will be visiting 15 different cities (one driver per city) including Mexico City and Toronto on Wednesday for the Chase Across North America promotion. Every Chase market will feature one of the drivers, with additional appearances in San Antonio, Los Angeles, New York and Bristol, Conn., headquarters of ESPN. This year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup gets underway Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway with the running of the MyAFibStory.com 400 (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET). Johnson is fourth in the standings following the resetting of points after the Richmond race. Brad Keselowski , the 2012 champion, is the points leader. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: NASCAR Chase Grid games WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Changes include drivers' harnesses, pit road officiating procedures Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live " Vote: Ultimate Daytona Challenge DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Race fans watching Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited from Daytona International Speedway may have noticed something different about the NASCAR officials working in the flagstand at the start/finish line during the 75-lap event. For the first time, those officials are now required to wear helmets as a safety precaution. Helmets will also be required for those driving the pace car during an event, as well as officials working the pit entrance areas, NASCAR spotters (there are a minimum of two, maximum of three stationed at various points around the track during events) and the official working the stop/go sign at the exit of pit road. And although they are working pit road from the non-active side of the pit wall, those four officials will continue to wear helmets as well. Any official working in close proximity to vehicles during an event will also now be required to wear a flame-retardant suit. Participants that serve in an honorary capacity, such as driving the pace car prior to the start of an event, or waving the green flag to begin the race, won’t be required to wear helmets because of the limited amount of time they are in those positions. However, a NASCAR spokesperson said such instances are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and changes could be made if officials felt it was necessary. Officials working in the flagstand have long been the targets of debris, with everything from rubber buildup tossed from tires to parts of cars that become dislodged due to damage posing a safety hazard. John Patalak, director, safety and structure engineering for the sanctioning body, told NASCAR.com that he doesn’t foresee a change in the system that could result in the use of technology to replace the flagman, however. “I think it’s an important part of the heritage of our sport and they still serve a very important purpose,” he said. “As technology becomes more and more complex and we use it for many things, you always have to have other options in place. That’s not something that’s been discussed.” The addition of helmets and fire suits isn’t the only safety-related change put into place for the 2015 season, which officially begins with the Feb. 22 running of the 57th Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. “Probably the largest thing that people have heard the most about but that really is a large safety is the addition of the Pro trailer and the system that kind of takes officials out of harms way on pit road and allows us to officiate from that standpoint,” Patalak said. “It’s an opportunity that we identified as a way to just continually make things better, make them safer,” he said. “In many cases, we have the opportunity to be proactive on things we identify; this is one of those situations.” Before this season, pit road officials went across the wall during pit stops to ensure that teams weren’t violating specific rules. Now, only four will roam the non-active side, while eight others will be housed nearby where they will use video replays to monitor pit road activities. The evaluation of safety protocol and procedures is ongoing, and not discussed only after the season has ended. Most are ongoing, such as changes to the safety harness systems used by drivers. Harnesses will no longer be mounted to points on the car body (chassis) and will no longer pass through an opening in the seat between a driver’s legs. Patalak said the harness change was “an incremental step in safety improvement.” “We’re not addressing a particular problem or issue but it brings just overall improvements and optimization of the seatbelts and seats for the driver,” he said. “When we look at issues like that, that’s just part of the continued march forward on making things safer. “There are other situations that require immediate attention. We just have to evaluate each of those different situations as they come up and present themselves. “We can put the bolts that hold the seat belts in the seat … exactly where they need to be for optimal performance of the restraint system .” Because car builds may differ slightly, not all belts had been attached in exactly the same spot. “So you have to move an inch here or an inch there,” he said. “By bringing all of that inside the seat, we no longer have to work around those parts and pieces. We’re down to the level now that we’re trying to tune the restraint system literally fractions of an inch for small gains.” That also eliminates the concern of hardware from the harness becoming stuck or cut by sharp edges. And it allows safety workers to remove the seat and driver as a single unit should it become necessary following a crash. “If the seat belts attach to the chassis we can’t move the seat and driver (simultaneously) because we’re rigidly fixed to the vehicle,” Patalak said. “If we bring all of the seat belts inside the seat, then we can move those things as a unit if we ever were to find that necessary.” Sprint Cup drivers are now required to use either a seven- or nine-point safety harness as well. It will be incorporated into the XFINITY Series for ’16 and the Camping World Truck Series in ’17. The difference is the addition of a third lap belt that goes between a driver’s legs and is known as the negative G belt. Its function is to protect a driver in the event of a rollover. The change, Patalak said, “allows us … to further optimize our anti-submarine belts, which are the belts they’ve always had between their legs for frontal impacts. “It really gets to the point where we are really (improving) seatbelts to fractions of an inch as far as where they’re located, to squeeze out the last bit of performance from the system .” Any change, even those that address safety issues, can impact competition, and that’s something Patalak said the sanctioning body is keenly aware of as it looks at each situation. A good example, he said, involves the installation of window nets, which can no longer be attached to the car’s B pillar. “That was a rule change made for the purpose of safety however it has an aerodynamic impact on the race car,” he said. “It's something that we needed to make happen, but it was something we had to consider very carefully because it was a tool that the teams have come to use to tune their race cars aerodynamically. “So we have to always look at cost and competition when we’re making changes to safety; all three are packed together to be successful at the end of the day.” 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