Bobby Labonte leads way at Daytona first round tests

Bobby Labonte leads way at Daytona International Speedway. First round of NASCAR Preseason Thunder ends at Daytona. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 9, 2003) - The first round of NASCAR Preseason Thunder ended Thursday at Daytona International Speedway...

Bobby Labonte leads way at Daytona International Speedway.
First round of NASCAR Preseason Thunder ends at Daytona.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 9, 2003) - The first round of NASCAR Preseason Thunder ended Thursday at Daytona International Speedway as NASCAR Winston Cup Series teams wrapped up a three-day test in preparation for the Feb. 16 Daytona 500.

Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet) had the fastest lap of two "regular" sessions, at 183.539 mph. There also was a one-hour "drafting" session during which cars were permitted to run in packs if they desired.

Preseason Thunder continues Saturday at DIS, with the first of three test days for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. The NASCAR Winston Cup teams return Jan. 14-16, with the second round reserved for teams with owners who had even-numbered finishes in the 2002 owners points. This week's three-day test run was for the "odds".

Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup champion, has switched from Pontiacs to Chevrolets this year.

"We're excited," Labonte said. "We spent 2 1/2 days working on things. One car [we eventually set aside] and just worked on the other car.

"Today we put everything on that car and came up with the fastest lap. Fatback (Michael McSwain, Labonte's crew chief) and the guys did a great job working on the car. Obviously we feel good coming out of Daytona with the fastest lap."

Michael Waltrip (No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet), the 2001 Daytona 500 champion, ended his testing strongly. He had the day's second-fastest lap, a 183.445 posted in the afternoon. Waltrip, also the winner of last year's Pepsi 400 at Daytona, also had the morning session's fast lap, 183.423.

Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&Ms Ford) looked ready to prove his runner-up finish at last year's 500 was no fluke. Sadler was second-fastest in Thursday's morning session at 183.277, then third-fastest in the afternoon at 183.423.

A total of 40 cars tested on Thursday; 24 participated in the drafting session that was held from 1-2 p.m.

NEWS OF NOTE

* Busch a cautious optimist * Kurt Busch (No. 97 Rubbermaid Ford) has had the fastest of the Roush Racing cars this week. That's good news for fans of the young driver who many consider a future NASCAR Winston Cup champion. Being cast as a title contender, Busch said, has altered his mindset going into the 2003 season, which will be only his third full NASCAR Winston Cup campaign.

"It's going to be a new element of challenge, so to speak," Busch said. "I've gone through a lot of things that weren't familiar to me the past three years with race tracks and cars and media and competition. By coming up so quickly it's been a lot to grasp so this will be a new challenge."

* In the draft * The first drafting practice session of NASCAR Preseason Thunder was held Thursday, a one-hour (1-2 p.m.) session. Cars hooked up in packs at various times during the session, which was topped by Kurt Busch's 184.999-mph lap. Prior to the drafting session, the fastest lap of the week was by Mike Wallace (No. 09 Miccosukee Resort Dodge), 184.053 on Wednesday.

* Next week: the "evens" * The NASCAR Winston Cup Series' participation in NASCAR Preseason Thunder continues Jan. 14-16 with the second phase of the series' Daytona testing. Next week's three-day phase is for owners who had even-number finishing positions in the 2002 owners points. Jan. 17 will be a "rain" date if needed.

* Kenseth wants to take next step * Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford) had a series-leading five victories last season. But he also had 11 finishes of 30th or worse. It all shook out to a solid - but still somewhat-disappointing - eighth-place finish in points. He had an average finish of 15.6. "My goal is, [to be] as competitive as we were last year, win a couple of races again and do a better job of not making the mistakes * [we need] to have a better, consistent finishing average," Kenseth said. "I have to do the best job to not make the mistakes I made last year that cost us points, and the people building the pieces that broke last year have to do a good job of trying not to break those pieces again."

* Wallace stalking first Daytona 500 victory Darrell Waltrip dealt with the frustration of not winning the Daytona 500 for years. So did Dale Earnhardt. These days it's Rusty Wallace (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) who gets asked when he'll win NASCAR's biggest event. Wallace has raced in the "Great American Race" 20 times, and although he hasn't won he has been close. In 2001 he finished third; in 2000 he was fourth; in 1998 he was fifth. He also has two top-five runs in the Pepsi 400, Daytona International Speedway's July race.

"Actually this track has been pretty doggone kind to me," said Penske Racing's Wallace, the 1989 NASCAR Winston Cup champion who has switched from Fords to Dodges this year. "We've had some good runs. I enjoy coming here.

"It would bug me if one of these days when I quit driving, if I haven't won [the Daytona 500] at all. That would bug me. I feel like it's my time to win, I really do. The Daytona 500 is definitely on my mind. If someone asked me which race I'd most like to win, I'd say the Daytona 500."

* Tony Raines (No. 74 Chevrolet) has been either at the bottom of the speed chart or close to it, during this first week of NASCAR Preseason Thunder. And although Raines is a series rookie, it's hard to imagine that his struggles will continue. His team, BACE Motorsports - owned by Bill Baumgardner - is one of the most successful in the history of the NASCAR Busch Series, the nation's No. 2 motorsports series behind NASCAR Winston Cup. BACE is the only team to win the NASCAR Busch championship over three consecutive years (1995 with Johnny Benson, '96-97 with Randy LaJoie). BACE drivers have 16 NASCAR Busch victories, twice recorded Rookie of Year honors (1994 with Benson, 1999 with Raines) and has set 17 NASCAR Busch Series records.

"I think this is just another step within my career," Raines said. "They will be all new competitors but I've run all the tracks that the Winston Cup Series will visit. I'm with the same organization this season and it's still a NASCAR series where you go through inspection every weekend just as you do in the Busch or Truck Series. So it will feel familiar but also different on the aspect of different drivers and teams. All the processes will be the same but the competition will be closer so I'll have to work a lot harder as a driver, we'll work harder as a team to get up in that top half of the field."

ETC.
Daytona International Speedway announced that Mariah Carey will sing the national anthem for the Feb. 16 Daytona 500. One driver pleased to hear that news is Steve Park (No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet), who like Carey grew up in the Long Island, N.Y., area. "The girl I went out with in high school was a good friend of hers," Park said. "I had a chance to meet her at a very young age. She was a super nice person. That will bring me good luck to win the race." Carey participated in a teleconference on Thursday and said she's thrilled to sing at the 500. "I've been to places where 200,000 people are circled around me, but it was a concert, not something like this,'' Carey said. "I've been to car races, but not since I was a little girl. I've definitely never been to something of this magnitude. It's exciting." * Daytona International Speedway has an online media center available. The Speedway's online media center is your best source for Speedweeks testing and events, photos, time and scoring information, quotes, video news release schedules and much more. Go to www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com/media. * DAYTONA USA will host another fan forum during this weekend's NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series tests, as NASCAR Preseason Thunder continues. On Saturday, Jan. 11, Bobby Hamilton, Bill Lester, Terry Cook and Jon Wood will participate in a question and answer session at noon inside the "Official Attraction of NASCAR." * All NASCAR Preseason Thunder testing sessions are open and free to the public with access to a section of the Oldfield Grandstand available through the lobby of DAYTONA USA. Tickets to Speedweeks 2003 events are available online at www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com or by calling the Speedway ticket office at (386) 253-7223.

-dis-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bobby Hamilton , Darrell Waltrip , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Rusty Wallace , Michael Waltrip , Steve Park , Mike Wallace , Kurt Busch , Johnny Benson , Tony Raines , Terry Cook , Bill Lester , Elliott Sadler