By LORI WORLEY

It’s that time of the year again when media from all over the country and beyond head to Charlotte for the annual media tour. 

 

 

For those unfamiliar with the media tour, let’s just say it’s a four-day preview of what’s to come in 2012 on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. There are plenty of interviews with drivers, car unveilings, free swag galore for the media folks and lots of swagger. Lots and lots of swagger.

You see, this is the time of the year when everybody is supremely confident that this will be their best year ever and a championship is definitely within reach. Happens at every single stop we make on the tour and you can bet that will hold true for Stop No. 1 at Stewart-Haas.

Monday the media will have lunch with defending and three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman. First they’ll chow down, then the questions will come fast and furious.

For Stewart the most popular inquiry will be “Can you win another championship this year,” and “How happy are you that Zippy’s back”?  Stewart no doubt will grow weary of answering these same two questions – and others – and will at some point, as he has in the past, let everybody know it. One thing you gotta love about Stewart, he doesn’t mince words.  

For Newman the questions will focus on whether he feels he can win a championship and how much does working with Tony help him meet that goal. And in case you’re wondering, the answers will be “Yes” and “A lot.”

Also on tap Monday will be a visit with the Joe Gibbs’ drivers, Kyle Busch (“Your brother’s going to driving for you… how do you think that’ll work out?”), Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. Later that evening we’ll head to  Michael Waltrip Racing where Clint Bowyer will face all kinds of questions – again – about leaving Richard Childress Racing and going to work for Waltrip, a guy Clint once referred to as “the worst driver in NASCAR.” I don’t have to tell you how many times ol’ Clint’s gonna hear that one. Oh, and Martin Truex, Jr. will have to try to convince everybody that he’s fine with Clint becoming MWR’s No. 1 driver.

Tuesday the media will visit with the Earnhardt Ganassi drivers then head to Roush Fenway to chat with Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and 2011 Sprint Cup Series runner-up Carl Edwards. And yep, in case you’re wondering, all of them will tell the media they think they can win the title this year. Oh, and Carl will be asked repeatedly if he made the decision to cut back on his Nationwide schedule to concentrate on winning the elusive Sprint Cup title.

Wednesday is the craziest day of the tour. It includes breakfast with JTG Daugherty Racing, a chat with Courtney Force at Z-Max Dragway, lunch with Furniture Row Racing’s folks, a visit to Hendrick Motorsports to check in with five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, four-time title winner Jeff Gordon, the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the team’s newest acquisition, Kasey Kahne of whom much is expected in 2012.

In case you’re wondering, the most popular questions for the Hendrick guys will involve winning a sixth title, a fifth title, a first title (that one will be for both Junior and Kahne) AND the big one --  whether Dale Jr. is finally thinking about getting married.  That’s a gimme.

Wednesday night’s dinner is courtesy of Richard Childress and his winery. Trust me, this is a visit all fans need to make. The food there is fantastic and then there’s the wine. Good stuff. Really, really good stuff.

Jeff Burton will have to talk a lot about why he had such a terrible year in 2011 and Kevin Harvick, whose mantra this year is “One Goal”, will explain multiple times what that’s all about, although seems pretty obvious to me. In case you don’t know, Harvick’s got his eye on the big prize and feels certain that this is his year to take it.

Thursday’s schedule takes the tour to Penske Racing where the refreshingly honest and outspoken Brad Keselowski and newbie A.J. Allmendinger, who takes over Kurt Busch’s ride, will be on the hot seat. Kes is a media favorite because there’s nothing he doesn’t have an opinion about and because of the streak he went on last year after messing up his ankle in a wreck. The Dinger too is full of personality and one-liners so you can just bet he’ll have some plenty to say during his time in front of the microphone.

The end of the tour comes fittingly at the NASCAR Hall of Fame where NASCAR’s top officials, including Mike Helton and Brian France, Jr., will give the media an update on any new happenings or changes for the upcoming season.

And then we wait. But not long. The season begins in just about a month and the assault on the 2012 championship begins. And the questions will continue…. One thing you don’t have to wonder about though is who’s going to win the championship. Just ask the drivers, they’ll be happy to tell you!