A number of drivers spoke Tuesday during NASCAR's annual pre-season media tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Streamlined Richard Childress Racing
The organization will only field two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams in 2018. Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman return, but the No. 27 entry formerly driven by Paul Menard has been parked for now. RCR did create a partnership with Richard Petty Motorsports and the No. 43 Chevrolet is now working out of the Welcome, N.C., campus.
Dillon believes the move will make the team stronger.
"I was excited when we decided to go to a smaller organization," he said. "Adding the Petty organization was a good hit, bringing in another driver to see what he does with the throttle, pedal and brake. Bringing different perspectives into the group is good for me as a driver so I can learn more.
"I see a lot of successful two-car teams. Our crew chiefs are best friends. They want to put RCR where it needs to be, and that’s winning championships."
Byron Ready for Cup
William Byron, last year’s Xfinity Series champion, moves to the Cup Series with Hendrick Motorsports in 2018. Byron takes the ride vacated by Kasey Kahne and although he understands there will be a learning curve, he believes there's an immediate opportunity for success.
"This is a dream come true, to be part of the Cup Series with a great race team that has a chance to win," Byron said. "We have all the resources and tools to do that. We’re trying to focus those in all the right areas."
The 20-year-old, who joins fellow young teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott along with veteran Jimmie Johnson, doesn’t think a lack of experience will be detrimental.
"There are a lot of new things I have to think about and approach differently, but this year’s going to be a really good year for us," Byron said. “There’s a lot of excitement and a lot of new things that we’re approaching. We’re trying to make ourselves better on the physical side but also with the racecars."
Almirola Set for Career Change
Aric Almirola takes the wheel of Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 Ford this season. He left Richard Petty Motorsports for the opportunity to move into the SHR ride, which was driven by Danica Patrick the last several years.
While Almirola is optimistic about what lies ahead, he’s not ready to put any hard and fast expectations on this coming campaign.
"I don’t want to put any hard number out there to say we have to do this or it will be a terrible year or if we don’t at least accomplish this, it will be a disappointment," Almirola said. "What I'm looking forward to is every single Thursday, getting on an airplane to go to the next racetrack with the expectation to perform well and run up front.
"For the last six seasons, I've gotten on an airplane thinking, 'Man, if we run top 15, we'll have a good weekend.' That's a complete shift in mindset when you go to the airplane on Thursday with your crew guys and say, 'Man, if we execute and do everything right, we can win.' That's got me more fired up than ever because that's what we all want. Nobody wants to be average. Everybody wants to be exceptional."
No 'Sophomore Slump' for Jones
Erik Jones won last year’s Rookie of the Year award after a stellar freshman season with Furniture Row Racing. Now, he moves to Joe Gibbs Racing and inherits the potent No. 20 Toyota from Matt Kenseth.
Jones will be seeking his first Cup win in 2018 and goes into the new year confident he can continue the success he demonstrated a year ago.
"It's good,” Jones said of his mindset. "It's higher than last year, when there were a lot of unknowns going into a new series with a new team. Having everybody in place, knowing Chris (crew chief Chris Gayle) and knowing the Cup Series better than I did last year is an advantage.
"I have a better feel for the cars, and how the season rolls and progresses. I'm definitely more comfortable than I was a year ago."
Crafton Looking Forward to Racing a Ford
Matt Crafton is excited to race a Ford this season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series after driving Toyotas for ThorSport Racing the last six years.
"I started in NASCAR driving a Ford," Crafton said, "in my old Southwest Tour days in 1997. That's all my dad has ever owned and raced, so it’s exciting for him. When I first started racing another manufacturer, he said, "I don’t know if I can root for you because I’ve only driven a Ford and you’ve only driven a Ford,' so I guess now, I’ve got a new fan in my dad."
The switch to Ford has made for a busy off-season for the Sandusky, Ohio-based team.
"We have to cut everything off from the windshield bed forward, put all the Ford noses on them and the Ford back half, so there’s a lot going on and those guys are working a lot of hours right now to get this stuff done," Crafton said. "We have four teams going to Daytona, so that's two (trucks) per team and we’re doing a test tomorrow. So we have one done for that."
The new Ford truck for ThorSport will hit the track for the first time on Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the test. Since only one truck is done, they plan on rotating drivers.
"All the crew chiefs are going to work together and come up with ideas," Crafton said. "The biggest thing is that we put a new nose on and just finished this weekend. We haven’t taken it to the wind tunnel yet. We have no idea what we’ve got, so it should be fun."
The team announced Tuesday that Ben Rhodes and Grant Enfinger will return to drive the No. 41 and No. 98 Fords, respectively.
More drivers spoke Wednesday during NASCAR's annual pre-season media tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Blaney Defends Youth Movement
Ryan Blaney spoke out against Kyle Busch’s opinion that too much focus is being put on the crop of young drivers coming into the sport rather than established veterans.
The newest member of Team Penske strongly disagreed with that viewpoint, adding that he hopes to help build the sport as one of the under-25 set in the Cup Series.
"It’s good for the sport and myself," Blaney said. "He (Busch) doesn’t like doing a lot of stuff. That’s why they don’t ask him. That upset me, how he bashed that part of it. But to each, his own.
"If he doesn’t want to do anything, so be it. It’s important to have not only young drivers but all NASCAR drivers pushing to get new demographics. I’m trying to do the best I can at it."
Keselowski Embraces Promoting NASCAR
Brad Keselowski has provided many memorable moments during his NASCAR career including a Cup Series championship in 2012. The outspoken driver has also generated a great deal of promotion and awareness of the sport through his use of social media and fan interaction.
Keselowski has no issues with taking on that role in addition to his duties behind the wheel of his Team Penske Ford.
"It's part of my job," he said. "I have a very good lifestyle and am privileged. It's not lost on me. I'm eating the fruits off a tree produced by generations before me ... by Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and the list goes on. I'm living off of what they have created in this sport that is so successful. In return for that, there's a question I think that isn’t just for me and not just for racecar drivers but for all of us on what we are leaving behind for the next generation.
"The role I feel responsible for is the same role I'd feel responsible for if I wasn’t a racecar driver: to make sure I haven’t done something to the sport to damage it for future generations. I'm trying the best I know how. Dale, Richard and all those guys left a hell of a legacy that I am not so sure any of us will be able to fulfill for the next generation. But I do feel an obligation to replant the seeds to grow the next orchard that the next generation will eat off of."
Menard Relishing Wood Brothers Role
Paul Menard moves from Richard Childress Racing to take the wheel of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford for the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The veteran driver is grateful for the opportunity to drive for one of NASCAR’s most beloved, successful teams.
"It hit me pretty hard probably three weeks ago, when Eddie and Len (team co-owners Eddie and Len Wood) were on this group text thing and they sent me a picture of the show car they had just finished with my name above the door," Menard said. "That was like, 'OK, it is happening!' It was cool.
"I can’t wait to get on the track in that car. It's a long list of names that are historic and a huge part of the sport who have driven it. That's special."
It’s been 6 1/2 years since Menard’s lone Cup Series win, in July 2011 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He'll make his 400th start in next month’s Daytona 500 and Menard is ready to end a 232-race winless streak.
"I'm not getting any younger and I would like to win some more," he said. "This is a great opportunity to do that."
Suarez Set for Second Season
Last year’s media tour found Daniel Suarez freshly thrown into the deep end of the Cup Series pool after he was named successor for Carl Edwards at Joe Gibbs Racing. Edwards’ unexpected announcement to step away from the sport opened the door for Suarez to move up to Cup earlier than anticipated, but the freshman driver showed improvement and promise.
As he readies for his sophomore season, Suarez feels his experience level will be beneficial.
"I'm more relaxed," he said. "I won't use the word nervous because I'm very calm. I don't get nervous very often. Last year, I had a lot of things on my mind and everything was happening so fast that the only thing I wanted was to go to the racetrack and drive. Right now, everything has been more smooth. Everything has been happening more normally and I believe that will help everyone to have a good start to the season."
Suarez has such high optimism for year two he believes a spot in the Championship 4 race to run for the title isn’t out of the question.
"It's early to say where we're at because nobody really knows," Suarez said. "But by the time the first half of the season ends, I'll let you know where we're at. We have the tools to do it. We have the team. We have the equipment. We have everything. We just have to work hard. That is not something new for us.
"Have fun and achieve our goals. If we do that, we can do anything. We just have to go out there and do what we know how to do. Last year numbers-wise wasn't the year we were expecting, but we know that the changes and the adjustments we've made are going to make a huge gain in our side."