DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Life in NASCAR is good, or so say the men who run the NASCAR programs for the series' four manufacturers.
During a panel discussion on Friday afternoon, Dodge's Mike Accavitti, Ford's Dan Davis, Chevrolet's Pat Suhy and Toyota's Lee White had little to complain about, despite what you may have read or heard elsewhere.
Each man instead took the opportunity to praise the work being done by his teams and the job being done by NASCAR officials. Then they offered a brief peek into the future in the form of the new Nationwide Series car currently being developed by NASCAR and the four manufacturers.
All four men agreed that this year's championship run should be the best ever.
"I think we're gonna have a really competitive slugfest down to the wire this year with probably the three top teams beating up on everybody all year," Davis said.
Accavitti claimed that Dodge, which scored just three victories in Cup competition in 2007, had an "off year." He fielded the blame by saying the manufacturer lost focus on what it was doing.
A good deal of that lost focus may have been caused by the confusion last season after Dodge submitted plans for a new engine, an engine intended to compete with the new engines by Toyota and the one that eventually was introduced by Chevrolet.
That engine, which originally was rejected by officials last year, since has been redesigned and NASCAR-approved. It should begin appearing under the hood of Dodge teams very soon, Accavitti said.
Chevy's Pat Suhy, whose teams dominated Cup competition last year – winning an amazing 28 out of 36 races – doesn't expect things to come as easily this year.
However, he believes it will be the quality of the teams that will dictate who will emerge as the best of the best throughout the season.
And in an obvious reference to Hendrick Motorsports, he added that teams who took the early initiative in the development of the new car, the Car of Tomorrow, will have a distinct advantage now that the series uses the car at every race track.
Lee White, whose teams have nowhere to go but up after a fairly dismal debut in the Cup series last year, wisely quoted our third President when asked to gauge his team's outlook for 2008.
"I think Thomas Jefferson put it well when he said, 'I prefer to dream of the future than read history,' " White said.
White is buoyed with optimism as he starts off 2008 with a proverbial ace up his sleeve, the addition of an exceptionally strong trio of drivers in the Joe Gibbs Racing stables: two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
He placed emphasis on the relief it was to stand in victory lane on Thursday following Hamlin's win in the second Gatorade Duel, the first by Toyota in a Cup race. It was a victory that added an exclamation point to the recent success Toyota teams have shown in testing.
But he cautioned that even with Toyota's recent headline-grabbing performance in testing at Fontana and Las Vegas, the proof will be its performance on Sunday.
"I've been in racing a long time – I've won testing many times and practice many times, but somehow it always seems a little different in the money rounds when it really counts," White said. "Let's wait until Sunday afternoon and see how we stack up."
Three of the nine Toyota teams in the field for this year's Daytona 500 will start in the top 10, highlighted by Michael Waltrip's Camry starting on the outside of the front row alongside pole winner Jimmie Johnson.
Despite Ford having the oldest and, by most accounts, the least powerful of the four manufacturer's engines, and with only Roush Fenway Racing as its standard bearer this season, Davis is very optimistic about Ford's chances.
He prefers quality over quantity.
"Realistically, you could have half the field here, and if they aren't championship-capable, it isn't doing you any good," Davis said.
He would like to expand Ford's roster to seven or eight – as he puts it "championship-quality" teams.
"We've got Roush with five going to four and you've got Yates doing some things, so to me, you need quality," Davis said, although it might be a stretch to include the Yates name on anyone's list of quality teams in the Sprint Cup series.
"You go back a couple of years, and the Roush organization has five in the top 10, right? I'll take that anytime."
As the season moves forward, Davis' "all of our eggs in one basket" approach will be put to its toughest test yet.
New Nationwide cars
As the discussion turned to the new cars currently under development for the Nationwide Series, all four men applauded NASCAR for moving the current CoT platform idea forward to the next step.
White offered that the new cars are similar to the CoT design currently in use in the Cup series, but with more personality.
"It actually looks like it's dressed up to go to the prom compared to the CoT," White said.
He added that he expects some of the changes being put into place in the new Nationwide design eventually to be used in the Cup car.
However, there still is an ongoing dialogue between the four manufacturers and NASCAR as to which models will be used on the Nationwide cars when they debut in 2009.
Original plans had called for three of the four manufacturers to use a model out of their "muscle car" category; Dodge would use the new retro Challenger, Chevrolet the new retro Camaro and Ford its Mustang.
Because Toyota has no current model in that category, the Japanese manufacturer would run the same Camry it fields in the Cup series.
However, after hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in wind tunnel development by Chevrolet and Ford, the latest word is that both have abandoned the muscle car in favor of a more marketing department-friendly choice.
Chevrolet's change of heart was brought about by those at GM who would prefer that the Camaro nameplate remain protected, like the Corvette, and that to surrender it as the face of Chevrolet's stock car racing efforts would be tantamount to blasphemy.
As a result, all signs point to Chevrolet using the Malibu nameplate for its Nationwide effort.
The Ford decision, in contrast, appears to be strictly a marketing one, although Davis suggested that the Mustang too often had been linked to road racing for it to become a stock car.
Davis' explanation, however, is a bit suspect because the Mustang is the model of choice for Ford's efforts in drag racing and it appears as the body style on superstar quarter-mile champion John Force's four-car team of Funny Cars in the NHRA.
Speculation is that Ford marketing execs have suggested reintroducing the Taurus. The Taurus nameplate, which was the model used by Ford in both Nationwide and Cup competition from 1998 until 2005, recently resurfaced on the street version of the somewhat redesigned Ford 500.
When quizzed about which model eventually would be used, Davis said that Ford was not prepared to announce it as of yet, and he hinted that it could end up being an altogether different car, one that has yet to be introduced to the American public.
And despite his refusal to acknowledge that Dodge is moving forward with its plans to use the Challenger, Accavitti did admit that when it came to making the decision which model Dodge would use, as a former marketing executive, he was empowered to make the decision.
"The guys my age who may have had one (a muscle car) when they were a kid or at least saw older guys or friends of theirs driving them, and you are speaking to a whole new generation of folks that want speed and performance, they might not know what a Camaro or a Challenger is, but when they see one they are going to want one," Accavitti said.
"When they see one on the track they are going to see that they're about performance and fun and having fun when you're driving."
His statement leaves little doubt as to which model Dodge would be using.
As the discussion ended, three of the four men expressed their optimism for a favorable outcome in Sunday's race.
Davis, however, preferred to look beyond Sunday and instead focus on the rest of the season, for obvious reasons.
"This place probably won't tell us what the season is going to look like because it's a special place with special circumstances, so we're gonna come out of here competitive, I think," Davis said.
White's perspective, as expected, was quite the opposite.
"I think from start to finish, with everyone figuring stuff out and the last 50 laps of this race on Sunday are going to be something to see, and I think you're all going to be writing about history," he said.