NOTEBOOK: Richard Buck is new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series managing director
By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- With the appointment of Richard Buck as NASCAR Sprint Cup Series managing director, a three-year "mystery" finally comes to an end.
Buck, currently serving as vice president of racing operations for the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) will assume his new duties after the completion of the Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 26.
Buck will replace current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby, who will remain with the sanctioning body as managing director, competition.
"Thanks for reminding me that we've been saying this for the last three years, that we were going to replace Darby as the Cup series director, which has been part of our game plan," NASCAR President Mike Helton quipped at a Thursday news conference at Daytona International Speedway.
"Once we started that effort, what became apparent to us was the need for recreating the NASCAR competition group, and so we didn't look as hard as we probably should have for a long time, knowing that there was a lot of internal work that was going to come…"
In addition to his role with IMSA, Buck has served simultaneously as managing director of NASCAR's Touring Series. In a varied career in racing, Buck played a key role in the development of a "spec" engine for what are now the NASCAR K&N Pro East and West Series.
BIG MOVE FOR LETARTE
Steve Letarte, crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., will join NBC Sports as a booth analyst after the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, the network announced Thursday.
Letarte completes a broadcast team that includes lead announcer Rick Allen and analyst Jeff Burton, whose hiring was announced late last year.
Letarte has served as Earnhardt's crew chief for the past three seasons and led the No. 88 team to a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup each year. From 2005 through 2010, Letarte was crew chief for four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion driver Jeff Gordon.
"As soon as I met with (NBC Sports executive producer) Sam Flood and his team at NBC Sports, it became obvious to me how excited they are to be covering NASCAR in 2015 and beyond," Letarte said in a statement released by the network.
"Their excitement, along with my love for racing, solidified my decision to move away from the pit box and into the broadcast booth."
During a question and answer session at Daytona on Thursday, Gordon said he believes Letarte's impending job change won't distract from his crew chief duties in his final year with Hendrick Motorsports.
"I think only time will tell how it's going to affect them, but I think Steve is very, very good at compartmentalizing the commitment and what it takes to do his job as a crew chief and be the best crew chief that he can be," Gordon said.
"He and Junior have a great relationship, and I'm sure when the news first broke to Junior, it probably was a bit of an adjustment, but I feel like they've worked through all the details on how to maintain that level of competition, the momentum that they had from last year, and keep that going through this year."
In a statement from Hendrick Motorsports, team owner Rick Hendrick affirmed that Letarte would remain in his current role throughout the 2014 season, the final year of his contract.
"You never want to see a talented and all-around quality person like Steve move on, but we understand this is an exciting opportunity for him and his family," Hendrick said. "He has all the tools to be a terrific broadcaster, and I know our fans will enjoy hearing his perspective.
"We're looking forward to a successful year in 2014 with Steve and Dale leading the No. 88 together. They have some of the best chemistry in the garage, and we know they'll build on last season and continue to be a championship-contending team.
"We don't expect to address the crew chief position until after the season. Everyone with the team is focused on 2014 and committed to having another great year."
FANS TO PICK SPRINT UNLIMITED FORMATS
For the second year in a row, race fans will have a significant voice in choosing the format and important competition elements for the Feb. 15 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
In voting that opened Thursday, fans will choose 1) the breakdown of lap segments in the 75-lap event, 2) the format for determining the starting order of the race and 3) the method for determining the running order for the start of the final segment.
Votes can be cast through the official NASCAR app, NASCAR MOBILE or at NASCAR.com/Sprint Unlimited. Choices for the lap breakdown are: 30-35-10; 30-30-15; or 30-25-20. Fans also will decide whether the starting order is set by most career poles (Jeff Gordon is the active leader with 74); by 2013 driver points standings, which would give the top starting spot to reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, or by top speed in final Sprint Unlimited practice.
At a Thursday announcement in the Daytona Fan Zone, FOX lead broadcaster Mike Joy revealed the final set of choices, whether to restart the final segment according to fastest lap during the race, most laps led to that point or the order leaving pit road after a mandatory two-tire pit stop.
Both Gordon and Johnson argued for the pit stop, but Denny Hamlin was adamant that the lead for the final segment should go to the driver who has led the most laps.
"If people know that their starting position is going to rely on leading laps, everyone's going to try to charge to the front for the first two segments," Hamlin said. "I think that gives the fans the biggest opportunity for the greatest racing from one segment all the way to three."
Voting results will be announced during the FOX Sports 1 race broadcast.
During a Thursday hard-hat tour of Daytona Rising, the massive long-term capital improvement project at Daytona International Speedway, reporters saw impressive evidence of progress made during the first six months of construction at the 2.5-mile speedway.
A new grandstand toward Turn 1, set back significantly from the existing seating, towers 146 feet above ground level. Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said the new grandstands along the frontstretch, once completed, would use one percent of the world's existing supply of steel.
Construction will stop for racing activities in the coming weeks, and the track has already begun an extensive information campaign to help guide spectators through the construction areas to their seats.
"We're building the property, but we're also going into race-ready mode," Chitwood said. "So you see us paving areas that weren't paved before, clearing out the dirt and creating the walkways fans will use… A fan will go through a gate, go through a walkway and in essence be walking through the middle of a construction zone with steel on both sides.
"That's all along the front of the property. We'll be dealing with communications, staffing, technology to make sure our fans know what's going to go on."
Chitwood also showed reporters a major change in one of the crossover gates in the frontstretch fence designed to allow quicker movement between the infield grass, known colloquially as the "football field" and the grandstands.
Instead of a traditional gate in the fence, which requires a movable stairway, the new gate opens in trap door fashion with metal trap doors flush with the concrete base of the grandstand, and with the SAFER barrier and mesh on the frontstretch moving inward to create a ramp from the racing surface into the stands.
If the new concept does what Chitwood expects it to -- moving spectators more quickly from the infield to the stands -- Daytona will incorporate the new style of gate into all its crossovers, as will its sister speedway at Talladega.
"It's as safe as what we have in place now, but what we like is the innovative side for the fans," Chitwood said. "That's what we're working on. We've been working on this for a number of years but just couldn't get a good design that made sense.
"We eliminate a staircase, a platform, and another staircase… Once you see that, you can understand how many parts we've removed from the process and why it should work much better."