Jeff Gordon starts preparation for Daytona 500

Saturday Night Live 'Star' Gordon starts preparation for 500. NASCAR Preseason Thunder continues for NASCAR Winston Cup Series. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 14, 2003) - Fresh from his appearance as host of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," four-time ...

Saturday Night Live 'Star' Gordon starts preparation for 500.
NASCAR Preseason Thunder continues for NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 14, 2003) - Fresh from his appearance as host of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," four-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon returned to his element Tuesday - a race track.

Gordon was one of 26 drivers testing at Daytona International Speedway, as NASCAR Preseason Thunder continued, in preparation for the Feb. 16 Daytona 500. That is the season's opening race, but also the season's biggest race, one Gordon has won twice, in 1997 and '99.

Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, overcame a first-half slump last season to rally and finish fourth in the NASCAR Winston Cup championship standings. His second-half surge has him pumped coming into 2003 as does the possibility of a fifth series title, which would put him closer to the record of seven titles co-held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

"It was an up-and-down season," Gordon said. "But I'm excited about this season. So many little things hurt us at times last year, but those are things that are relatively easy to fix."

On Jan. 11, Gordon became the first motorsports competitor to host "Saturday Night Live," and participated in a series of raucous skits, including one in which he had a boa constrictor wrapped around his upper body.

"That was a real snake, too," Gordon said.

"The whole week in New York was an awesome experience. The people with the show treat you like gold. And with the skits, they told me anything I wasn't comfortable with * they allowed me to have input on everything.

"There were so many things [memorable] throughout the week. I had such a blast, but at the same time I didn't want to screw up too bad. And I got to do a lot of things that I never thought I'd do in front of a mirror, much less do them [on a stage]."

Gordon was 21st-fastest (181.265 mph) on Tuesday, which was Day 7 of NASCAR Preseason Thunder, and the beginning of the second three-day session for NASCAR Winston Cup teams. Last week was reserved for teams whose owners had odd-number placings in the 2002 owner points. This week is for teams whose owners had even-number placings.

NEWS OF NOTE

* Fittipaldi fastest on Tuesday * Christian Fittipaldi was a surprise "fastest-driver-of-the-day" Tuesday, at NASCAR Preseason Thunder. Fittipaldi was in the Andy Petree-owned No. 33 Chevrolets. Car No. "33x" was the fast machine, with a 183.561-mph lap, posted in the afternoon session, leading the day's speeds.

Fittipaldi is a heralded rookie, the nephew of former Formula One and Indy 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi, and comes to NASCAR from the CART open-wheel circuit. He also tested for Petree last week at Daytona, in the No. 55 Chevrolet.

"You find the precision [in a race car] in your own way," Fittipaldi said, when asked to compare the feel of CART machines to full-body stock cars. "I think every motor racing vehicle has a soft spot to it."

* Burton an optimistic Daytona defender * Ward Burton (No. 22 Caterpillar Dodge) is the defending Daytona 500 champion, lest anyone forget. And chances are, some may have, after last year's season-opening monumental victory was followed by an up-and-down season. Burton may have won the NASCAR Winston Cup Series' biggest race, but he finished 25th in the series points.

Now, though, it's a new season and what better place to start than Daytona International Speedway?

"It feels real good now [to have won the 500]; it felt real good then, a year ago," Burton said Tuesday, during a NASCAR Preseason Thunder testing break at Daytona.

"Some of the problems we couldn't fix last year. We had a bunch of mechanical trouble the first half of the season that got us behind in points. The last part of the season, it seemed like every time somebody was spinning out or wrecking or something, I was right there.

"Everybody is working as one [right now]. I think they're doing that better than ever before."

* Larry Foyt taking the next step * On Tuesday at Daytona, A.J. Foyt Racing formally announced the team's 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series plans of Larry Foyt - A.J.'s son - campaigning for Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors with sponsorship from Harrah's.

A.J. Foyt has struggled with his operation since he returned to NASCAR Winston Cup as an owner in 2000. For 2003, Foyt has made some big changes. He'll switch car makes, hopping from Pontiacs to Dodges, and he'll end his own engine program and ulitlize engines from Evernham Motorsports.

"It's a team effort," Foyt said. "We've had some good people. We've had some bad people. We just haven't had a team to pull it together all at 100 percent. Yes, it has been very frustrating. Every time I come down here, I didn't necessarily beat them all the time. I did beat them a few times, but at least I was up there until something happen. That's not the way I run my racing operation. I've worked real hard to turn it around."

Foyt believes his son is ready to tackle the challenges of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

"I've thrown him in here with a pack of wolves mainly on purpose and that's the best way to learn," Foyt said.

Larry, who finished 20th in the 2002 NASCAR Busch Series point standings with two top-10 finishes, has set some reasonable goals for 2003 - qualify for all the races and be consistent.

"My dad, as long as you're giving 100 percent, he's not going to be on you as bad," Larry said. "If you're just riding around, he has that uncanny eye to tell, he's going to be all over you. For me, it's get seat time and I want to run up front. Top 20s for me would almost be like a win."

Etc. * 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, timing and scoring information, quotes, video news release schedules and much more. Go to http://www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com/media. * DAYTONA USA will host another Fan Forum during this week's NASCAR Winston Cup test as NASCAR Preseason Thunder continues. On Wednesday, owner Bill Davis, 2002 Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton and teammate Kenny Wallace will participate in a question and answer session, beginning at 6 p.m. 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 Dale Earnhardt , Ward Burton , Jeff Gordon , Kenny Wallace , Christian Fittipaldi , Larry Foyt , Richard Petty , Andy Petree , Emerson Fittipaldi , A.J. Foyt