DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When NASCAR conducted its first Sprint Cup practice session of the season Friday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway, the drivers who took the track in preparation for Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited probably needed a roster on their dashboards to keep track of all the drivers who had swapped rides, teams, and car numbers during an offseason of musical chairs.
“I mean, it’s that way every year,’’ said Tony Stewart, whose own race team, Stewart-Haas Racing, underwent perhaps the most radical change when it expanded from three to a four-car stable by jettisoning Ryan Newman to make room for the addition of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.
“You always have guys that are moving around,’’ Stewart said. “We got a lot of new rookies that you’re going to have to try to remember what cars they’re in, drivers that are switching organizations.
“There’s a lot of movement this year.’’
Stewart’s team was a catalyst for some of the season’s biggest moves, with Harvick filling the seat vacated by Newman in the No. 39 Chevrolet. Newman landed with Harvick’s old team, Richard Childress Racing, driving the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevy formerly driven by Jeff Burton, who will drive a limited schedule before becoming a TV analyst for NBC Sports next season.
“As you come to Daytona every year, there are always changes — whether it be car numbers, drivers moving to [new] teams, crew chiefs,’’ said Harvick, who will drive the No. 4 Budweiser-sponsored Chevy, formerly the No. 39 driven by Newman.
“It’s refreshing,’’ Harvick said. “It’s kind of like any other sport. You see people move around and it’s exciting. It’s no different than seeing Peyton Manning going from the Colts to the Broncos.’’
In keeping with this season of change, NASCAR implemented several of its own changes by revamping the qualifying procedures and the Chase for the Sprint Cup format. The pole will be decided in a knockout-style elimination while the Chase field will be expanded to 16 drivers and whittled to a final four in a three-phased process before the Nov. 16 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Newman will be joined by rookie driver Austin Dillon, the 23-year-old grandson of owner Richard Childress who will be among eight Rookie of the Year candidates earning their stripes in the Sprint Cup Series.
Dillon will move into Harvick’s old No. 29 Chevy, but campaign the iconic No. 3, which late seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt made famous. It has not been run since Earnhardt’s death in a last-lap crash of the 2001 Daytona 500.
“From my position, it’s a new situation for me in the essence that I’m going to a team that is already existing,’’ said Newman, who began his career with Penske Racing, driving eight full seasons there before joining Stewart-Haas’s fledgling organization in 2009.
“When I started at Penske, we grew a team. When I went to Stewart-Haas, we put a bunch of people together,’’ Newman added. “Now I’m jumping into a seat that is just really a driver swap is a different situation for me and it’s something I look forward to.
“Just to know that Richard Childress Racing is in control of [its] own destiny. Every part and every piece that goes under the race cars is built at RCR, one of a few organizations left that has that control.’’
Busch, who won the inaugural Sprint Cup championship in 2004 driving for Jack Roush, resurrected his career that appeared to go off the rails when he fell out of rides at Roush Fenway Racing, then Penske Racing in 2011. He climbed back into an elite-level ride after driving 29 races for Phoenix Racing and car owner James Finch in 2012, which led to six races with the Denver-based Furniture Row Racing team owned by Barney Visser.
Busch’s departure from the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy created a vacancy filled by Martin Truex Jr., who found refuge with Visser’s team after his ride in the No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, fielded by Michael Waltrip Racing, dissolved when NAPA pulled its sponsorship and MWR shuttered the team in the aftermath of a race-fixing scandal that led to Truex’s expulsion from the Chase field.
Brian Vickers will fill Truex’s spot at MWR and drive the No. 55 Toyota.
“It’s one of those things you just want to forget about and move forward,’’ Truex said, when asked about the impact of last season’s drama. “And I am excited about the new changes and I think it’s a great thing and obviously in what we have seen in football where it’s a more exciting playoff system — I think it’s going to be more like that.’’
Busch propelled the single-car Furniture Row outfit to its first berth in the 12-car field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year after posting 11 top-fives and 16 top-10s. Although Stewart was adamant about expanding to a four-car stable after adding Harvick, Gene Haas, the team’s co-owner, made a command decision to add Busch and fund the team by making Haas Automation the primary sponsor.
“It’s an exciting time to have a shot at winning the Daytona 500 because Gene Haas expects Haas Automation and his brand to be competitive right away,’’ said Busch, who will drive the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevy. “He wants that hardware from Victory Lane and at the same time we have a regular season to develop as a team to be ready for the Chase when it starts.’’
By then, NASCAR hopes its fans — and drivers alike — will have sorted out all the roster changes in the season-opening Daytona 500 Feb. 23.
“Every year when we come down here for [Speedweeks], whether it’s a qualifying race or practice, you’re always like ‘Who’s in that thing again?’ ’’ Stewart said. “You might see a rookie stripe on a car that you’re not used to seeing [on a car], saying, ‘Who is this again?’
“That’s the good thing about each practice session. By the time the 500 rolls around, you pretty much remember who is who by then.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.