RICHMOND TEST DAY TWO: JEFF GORDON, DALE EARNHARDT JR. BACK IN FORM * Defending champion Tony Stewart among visitors to Richmond media center * Kevin Harvick, Ken Schrader top morning speed chart DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (April 12, 2006) --...
RICHMOND TEST DAY TWO: JEFF GORDON, DALE EARNHARDT JR. BACK IN FORM
* Defending champion Tony Stewart among visitors to Richmond media center
* Kevin Harvick, Ken Schrader top morning speed chart
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (April 12, 2006) -- After one of the more trying seasons of their NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series careers, Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) find themselves back on track this week at Richmond International Raceway.
Not only are they logging test laps, they're back in the mix for the ultimate payoff -- a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup when the series returns to Richmond in September. Gordon is eighth in the series standings after seven events; Earnhardt is sixth -- much better than where they finished in 2005.
"I'm pleased," said Gordon, who finished 11th last season, his worst result since his rookie season of 1993. "I guess this is what I was expecting of us at this point in the season where we were a better team. We had better race cars. Not necessarily the cars being better, but the setups relating to how I like to drive, the comfort and feel. I think it's given me more confidence. It's building confidence in the team."
Wednesday marked the second day of a three-day session at Richmond, which hosts two events -- the Richmond 400 on May 6, and the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 on Sept. 9. Teams may test on two of the three days.
The latter event is race No. 26, the cutoff event that sets the field for the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. Following the season's first 26 events, the top 10 drivers and any within 400 points of the leader will battle for the series title over the final 10 races.
"Target is to run as good as you can every week," said Earnhardt, who finished a career-worst 19th last year. "Everything else kind of takes cares of itself. We just go out there and race as hard as we can, take the car we got, do the best we can with it every week."
Gordon and Earnhardt were among the drivers who visited the Richmond media center Wednesday. This week's Richmond test marks the third of six designated 2006 tests for NASCAR NEXTEL Cup teams. This year, NASCAR has scheduled those tests as a cost-containment measure at tracks that host series events, and those dates are the only test opportunities at those tracks.
"It's a very important test for us," Gordon said. "I think we're learning a lot of things. We've made so many changes with our race team this year, our race cars, we're just really out there trying a lot of new things.
"We're fortunate that we're running decent enough to be in the top 10 in points right now where we can experiment. But we also know we got to get better than what we are, so we have to experiment. This is a perfect opportunity for us to do this."
Which means no time to dally. Earnhardt noted an accelerated pace during the past two days, with cars zipping in and out of Richmond's garage.
"There's just a larger sense of urgency because you know you only got five tests," he said. "Where you might take a little more time in between runs, you're in and out of the garage a lot quicker now, where you're trying to get as many runs as you can, trying to try as many things as you can. You're doing a lot of things that you may be testing for, for other tracks, like Phoenix and other places that are similar to a Richmond."
While Gordon fine-tuned with new crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt had a shadow during his two-day test: Mark McFarland, who drives Earnhardt's JR Motorsports-owned No. 88 U.S. Navy Chevrolet in the NASCAR Busch Series. McFarland, a Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate, was at his boss's heels for most sessions, taking notes atop the transporter and in the garage.
"I brought him here to see if he could understand some of the things and see a little bit how they're kind of off base on a couple areas," Earnhardt said of McFarland and the new team's growing pains. "He's got a notepad, he's been filling it up. Hopefully he takes it back and learns something."
Good Job: The Champ is a Kasey Kahne Fan ... Among the drivers who visited the Richmond media center Wednesday, the defending series champion, Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) addressed several topics during the lunch break. He also lauded Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge), whom he dueled in the final laps last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Kahne won while Stewart finished third, and Stewart complimented the younger driver both on his learning curve and his demeanor.
"He's a talented kid," said Stewart, who finished second when Kahne won his first series race last May at Richmond. "He's one of those guys that when you explain something to him, he does a lot more listening than he does talking, and that's hard to find with guys that are really competitive."
As for this week's test, Stewart said any short-track knowledge gained would be unique to Richmond's three-quarters-mile length.
"There's really no comparison," he said of the possible transfer of information to the shortest tracks on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup schedule, .526-mile Martinsville Speedway and .533-mile Bristol Motor Speedway. "This is kind of an in-between of both of them as far as banking and how you drive the track. Really all three of them are unique in their own different ways."
Kevin Harvick, Ken Schrader Fastest in Morning Session ... A Chevrolet and a Ford topped the charts following Wednesday's morning session. Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet) led all drivers with a top speed of 126.505 mph (21.343 seconds). Ken Schrader (No. 21 Little Debbie Ford) was second at 126.062 mph (21.418 seconds).
What: NASCAR NEXTEL Cup testing.
Where: Richmond International Raceway.
Track Layout: three-quarters-mile oval.
When: Tuesday, April 11 through Thursday, April 13.
Times: 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. (ET)
Who: 48 drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series