Larry McReynolds on Daytona, Danica, Dinger and more

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Wednesday night, prior to the Gatorade Duels, Emmy-winning NASCAR on FOX commentator and 2-time Daytona 500 winning crew chief Larry McReynolds was gracious enough to speak with me by phone. Not only did I ask him about the Daytona 500 and the upcoming season, but while I had him on the line, I had to ask him about some of the most talked-about people and trending topics, too. 

Lisa Janine Cloud (LJC): What’s your impression of the racing so far? (Remember, this was prior to the Gatorade Duels on Thursday.)

Larry McReynolds (LM): I applaud NASCAR. The fans reached out even before the end of last year and said that most, not all, but most said we truly do not like the tandem racing. NASCAR worked hard. They started testing last year at Talladega in the fall, had three days testing in January, Didn’t make earth-shattering rule changes, but continued to make small changes throughout. And so far, between the Budweiser Shootout and these practices today [Wednesday], it’s still there, we knew it would be, but it certainly seems that it’s much more of a minimum than it was last year.

LJC: Do you think NASCAR will make any changes to improve the stability of the cars?
LM: I don’t think so. I think if they were going to make changes they would have done it by now. It’s not a new thing for the car to get sideways when hit in the left rear, it’s not like that just popped up in the Shootout. I think that even the driver feedback, even from Jeff Gordon who ended up flipping side over side and landing on his roof…I think most of the drivers are enjoying getting back to that type of racing.

LJC: Could it be that they’re not used to racing like that anymore?
LM:  These guys, they’re pretty amazing. I don’t know if they truly get out of practice. I think it’s more the rules that’s come about that don’t allow you to push as long as you could last year, mostly to do with the airflow and the cooling with the radiator, that it’s more magnified now because you do have to roll out and get off of a driver, and then when you go back and connect again, you kind of do a little bit of a bump but you can’t push as hard. I think we’ve seen that get a few drivers in trouble.  We’re back to the bump drafting, but it’s a little different simply because you can’t push as long with these new cooling rules.

LJC: Of all the changes that have taken place since the end of last season, which do you think will have the most effect?
LM: I’d like to include the slight changes to break up the two-car, two-driver, tandem racing. But that only affects four races, two racetracks. The two at Daytona, two at Talladega, so that’s kind of a small snapshot.  Electronic fuel injection…that’s kind of huge. For the first time in over 60 years of NASCAR, we’re not going to be racing a four-barrel carburetor. It’s still early but it appears that all the work NASCAR has done - they've been working on it well over two years - and the teams, the manufacturers have done, I feel confident in saying it that while it’s big for the sport because it’s more relevant to what’s in passenger cars, it’s really not going to affect too much of the racing. When we close the hood, unless we mention it, the fans won’t know. Are we going to have some bumps in the road? We don’t know. Right now, other than us getting in conversations about it down here, it’s absolutely been a non-issue. 

You know we talk about stories, we can sit here and talk about last year, we can talk about who should win this year, but there’s always going to be a surprise.  It never fails, there’s a surprise. Even going back to last year, Tony Stewart was a surprise. I think it was even a surprise to Tony Stewart.

LJC: Do you think that Brad Keselowski’s new teammate could be one of those surprises?
Photo: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
LM: I’ve said quite a bit that two guys that I think are truly going to have breakout seasons this year. One of them is AJ Allmendinger. I think he will win a race this year. I think he will have a possibility of making the Chase for the first time in his career. The other guy, not that it will be a breakout season, but one of the biggest come-to-the-forefront type drivers this year, will be Kasey Kahne in that [No.] 5 car. In my book, with Kenny Francis and the resources at Hendrick, he could truly be the banner driver over there at Hendrick Motorsports this year. He could win the most races over there. I think those two drivers that will be Chase contenders. Who are they going to replace? Sitting here right now, I have not a clue. Nobody does.

LJC: What’s your reaction to Steve Letarte requiring more of Dale Earnhardt Jr. than he was required to do before?
I think it’s good. I think it’s what Dale Earnhardt Jr. needed. I say with confidence he [Earnhardt Jr.] has not forgotten how to drive a race car. You don’t win 18 Cup races and two Nationwide Series championships and not know how to drive a racecar. But I just think he needs someone like Steve Letarte to work with him, trust in him, believe in him, but at the same time also push him. That’s something that I don’t know Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had a lot of, especially of late. I still think there’s work to do. They still have to figure out how to put the beginning, the middle and the end [of a season] together. 
Photo: LJ Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs
I think he’s becoming more engaged with the race team. He’s more a part of that race team, and I think to be successful that’s what has to happen. Even Jimmie Johnson, who still had a good year last year - I know by their standards it was not where they felt like they should be - Jimmie Johnson said that even though he tried to relax and re-energize in the off season, he put a lot of thought into how he could become a better team member of the [No.] 48 team and could become more engaged. And there’s a guy who has won fifty-something races and five consecutive championships.  

LJC: I have to ask you about Danica. Have what do you think about how she’s fitting in with the team? Have you been able to observe any of that?
Photo: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
LM: I have. And again, it’s still early, the honeymoon is still early. You know, Daytona’s a different animal; you don’t have to work on solving handling problems and all those things because everybody’s car drives pretty good.  But I still continue to be so impressed with Danica Patrick. I was talking to her crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, tonight and I think he truly feels the same way. He says he’s never seen anybody that he’s worked with that is so engaged, so much “what can I do better, what can I do different, what can I do, what can I do." I think as long as she keeps that attitude, she’s going to be successful. 

I’ve said all along I don’t envy what she’s tried to do the last two years. That would have been tough on anybody in our sport. That would have been tough on Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, it wouldn’t have mattered, to run a full IndyCar schedule and bounce back and forth from NASCAR Nationwide to Indy cars. 

I’m glad she’s over here full time, I like what they’re doing with her. What are the expectations? I’m hesitant on setting expectations of Danica Patrick. I just want to see her be competitive in that Nationwide Series car, and she should be. Would I be surprised to see her win a race? Maybe not. She finished fourth at Vegas last year, she finished really well here [at Daytona] in the Nationwide Series last year.

As far as Cup, what are the expectations? No different than any of the other 42 drivers that crank those engines Sunday for the Daytona 500. She could win the thing. Anybody could win it. It’s hard to win, but you can’t count anybody out. That’s one reason we’ve had 10 winners in the last 10 races. Now, when she leaves here, the mountain’s going to get a little steeper in Cup. They’ve picked a very tough schedule for her, but I think they’ve done that by design. They want her to learn how to learn how to race at the tougher racetracks so maybe she will be a little better prepared if indeed they do decide to go full time in 2013.

I just want to see her be competitive and I want to see her running at the end of all these Cup races. If she can do that, then it will be good.

LJC: She did have the longest string of consecutive finishes in IndyCar. So if she can finish in one of those cars, maybe she’s got a good chance of finishing with fenders.  
That’s going to be important. And nobody knows it better than her. It’s going to be tough because her schedule includes Darlington, Dover, Bristol…I mean they’re definitely going all the way to the deep end with her. But I think they’d rather do that this year and build her learning curve, again for maybe that full time run in 2013.  

LJC: Okay, 2012, we’re past Daytona. What’s the next big thing we’re looking at?
LM: Now we get into the meat and potatoes of our racing. These are tracks where they are three-day shows. There’s no testing. You’ve got to roll in there, you’ve got to qualify, you’ve got to solve chassis problems and handling problems and you’ve got to get right for race day. And when you look at all the new driver and crew chief combinations, I’ve said all along, down here is not the measuring stick, it’s when we get into those tracks and that type of racing when we see—and there are a plethora of them—how they’re truly going to work.

I’ve said all along that EFI is going to be a non-story, but I’m really going to feel better about it after we get through three or four of those types of racetracks because I think if indeed something’s going to crop up and throw us a challenge, it’s going to be at those types of racetracks.  
I think the biggest thing, though, is all these changes that’s come about during the offseason, with the drivers and crew chiefs and new combinations, is where they’re all going to be after about race number four, five, or six, up until we get to that first off weekend, Easter weekend.

LJC: Finally, the No. 48…was that really a rule infraction?
The NASCAR inspection template.
Photo: LJ Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs
LM: It was. You know, this car that we race today came out in 2007 and NASCAR has been very adamant since day one, "We’re going to give you liberties of things to work with with these cars, but pretty much the body surface is sacred ground." We've got all these templates... we've got the claw, we’ve got the grid of templates, but you’ve also got to treat the surface like Robin Pemberton says, like a goal surface. It’s almost like a CAD drawing. That has been the deal since day one. And if you remember, that first year Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte, who was then with Jeff Gordon, got slapped pretty hard because their front fenders, in the nose area, they all fit the templates, but they had changed the configuration of them. That was at Infineon in June of ’07. They suspended both of them for six weeks, they fined them both $100,000 and Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon each lost 100 driver and 100 owner points.

Now is this the same infraction? No two infractions are the same, but it certainly has to do with the same area. Basically their car fit the templates, they fit the claw, they did everything right, but they did very much alter the configuration of the C-posts. C-posts are pretty critical areas. It’s the last thing on the greenhouse that the air sees before it finds the rear spoiler and anything you can do to divert the air away from the rear spoiler at Daytona or Talladega, the car’s going to be faster on the straightaways.

They certainly did catch it prior to the car ever going on the racetrack, but I’ve got to believe that one reason NASCAR didn’t make a ruling this week on the penalties and are waiting until next week is that they’re trying to make sure they do the right thing. There are a lot of eyes watching, wondering what are they going to do. 

NASCAR’s doing a much better job year after year of being more open. They’ve already said in 2012 we’re not going to have any more of these secret fines. That we will publicize them, the fans deserve the right to know, and they are really doing a nice job, I think, of making sure there’s not going to be any the man behind the curtain things like we had for years.

LJC: Like listening to the fans about the Shootout going back to being the pole winners.
LM: Yes, I know they’ve been in a box the last few years because Coors sponsoring the pole and Budweiser sponsoring the Shootout that’s one reason they had to go a different road. But I like that it’s going back to the old format. I know as a crew chief and from working on race teams, it was a big deal when you’d sit on your first pole. You know, it would sink in pretty quickly afterward, “Son of a gun, we’re in the Shootout next year.” It was a huge thing. I like the fact that they’re going to go back and still let any of the past winners of the Shootout be a part of it as long as they attempt to race this year, so really and truly, when you look at the past winners that’s attempting to qualify for the 500, Ken Schrader, we know he’s going to run 10 or 12 races. Carl Edwards has already qualified for it, Kyle Busch has already qualified for it. We already have 11 drivers that are eligible for it and we’ve only had one qualifying session. I know why they had to get away from it, but I like the fact that they’re going back to it.

 A Texas-sized thank you to Larry McReynolds for taking time during what has to be his busiest time of the year to speak with me and share his knowledge with the Skirts and Scuffs readers. 
Larry McReynolds on Daytona, Danica, Dinger and more Larry McReynolds on Daytona, Danica, Dinger and more Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Saturday, February 25, 2012 Rating: 5