Rites Of Passages: New Crop of Talented Drivers Tackles Daytona
* Honoring A Friend: Roush Crew Chief Mike Kelley Remembers 'B.P.'
* "Wiggle Room:" Australian Marcos Ambrose Gets His First Taste Of Daytona
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 19, 2007) -- As NASCAR Busch Series director Joe Balash called the first rookie meeting of the 2007 season to order at Daytona International Speedway on Friday, he had a wide smile as he addressed the eight drivers who represent the future of NASCAR.
"It's really refreshing to see this many young faces in the garage," Balash said.
Steve Wallace (No. 66 HomeLife Communities Dodge), at age 19 with 18 series starts to his credit, was the "veteran" of the group. He's scheduled to run a full season for his father's Rusty Wallace Inc. team this year.
Wallace shared race talk with David Ragan (No. 6 Discount Tire Ford), another of Jack Roush's young driving talents. Ragan will pull double duty this year, also competing in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series as the successor for the legendary Mark Martin.
Tampa, Fla., native Aric Almirola (No. 20 Rockwell Automation Chevrolet) -- sharing a ride with Denny Hamlin this season for Joe Gibbs Racing -- was oblivious to the cool morning, showing up in shorts. The 22-year-old is hardly as casual in his driving, already having won a Busch Pole at Milwaukee last summer subbing for Hamlin.
Also listening in was Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge), who departs from one motorsports world -- as a former Indianapolis 500 champion and Formula One star -- to another with NASCAR.
"This place is so much fun," he said of Daytona, where he turned his first laps last week during NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series testing.
Stephen Leicht (No. 90 CitiFinancial Ford), who turned 20 on Jan. 9, won't carry a yellow rookie stripe on his rear bumper due to his 20 starts for Robert Yates Racing last season. But he's another of this new crop of drivers who plan to use the NASCAR Busch Series as a developmental step with NASCAR's "ladder system." The 2006 rookie crop in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup included six drivers who competed full-time in the NASCAR Busch Series in 2005.
"I am so glad that I'm in a full time Busch ride," said Leicht, fourth-fastest in the Friday morning session (182.437). "I would rather be totally prepared when I get to a Cup car than just half-prepared. I would rather take my time getting there -- I've got plenty to time -- and spend a whole year going to all the race tracks again and learning more."
Pit Stops: Around The Daytona Garage
Roush Crew Chief Kelley Honors 'BP' ... Mike Kelley, crew chief for the No. 6 Discount Tire Ford of David Ragan, is honoring his good friend Benny Parsons during testing. Kelley had decals created for the rear bumper panels of the No. 6 and on Todd Kluever's No. 16 3M Ford that read "We're Gonna Miss You BP," in reference to the former NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion who died Tuesday following a lengthy battle with cancer. "Benny was a true friend and very special to me," Kelley said. "He made sure my stress level was down during the  Chase [for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup] when I was car chief [for champion Kurt Busch]. "He would take the time to check with me every day to make sure the pressure wasn't getting to me."
NASCAR Busch Series Welcomes Toyota ... A new manufacturer -- Toyota -- enters the NASCAR Busch Series this season, racing its Camry model. Two teams will feature Toyota this year -- Braun Racing, which announced on Thursday the formation of a three-car team after partnering with Biagi Bros. Racing and ppc Racing -- and Michael Waltrip Racing with driver David Reutimann (No. 99 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota). Jason Leffler (No.38 Great Clips Toyota), who will team with Dave Blaney (No. 32 Fan1st.com Toyota) and now John Andretti (No. 10 FreedomRoads Racing Toyota), late of ppc, is well aware of the expectations that come along with the new manufacturer.
"From the support aspect of it, I think Toyota -- with whatever they get involved in they want to be successful," Leffler said, "so they are going to give us everything we need. I really feel that we do have a great chance ... I really feel like we can be competitive and contend for the championship as long as we can be consistent."
Unleaded Fuel To Make Full-Season Debut ... NASCAR Busch Series teams will switch over to Sunoco 260 GTX unleaded fuel beginning with the Feb. 17 season-opening Orbitz 300 at Daytona. The move comes a year earlier than NASCAR had previously targeted when it announced in January 2006 a switch to unleaded fuel by the 2008 season. NASCAR began phasing unleaded fuel into its three national series last July when the NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series ran unleaded fuel for a portion of the second half of the 2006 season. NASCAR Craftsman Truck teams will make the switch over to unleaded fuel also beginning at Daytona, with the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup teams making the switch at California Speedway on Feb. 25.
Ambrose Likes "The Wiggles," Just Not On The Track ... Last year at this time, Marcos Ambrose had come from Australia to watch his Wood Brothers/JTG Racing teammate Jon Wood race. Today, he's testing the team's flagship car, the No. 59 Kingsford Ford, for his first-ever laps around the 2.5-mile superspeedway. The personable native of Tasmania left the V8 Supercar Series while at the top of the sport to pursue a career in NASCAR. He competed full-time in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series last season. After his first test session in a NASCAR Busch Series stock car, he felt as though he had arrived.
"It's a lot bumpier than I thought; a lot narrower than what I thought," Ambrose said, "but, you know, it's just a thrill to be here. It feels today that I've actually ... I've made it to NASCAR."
As Ambrose left the media center to head back to testing, he was asked if he was a fan of the "Wiggles," the Australian ensemble that is a favorite of children throughout the world.
"I love the Wiggles," he said. "I have a daughter (Tabitha), so of course I love the Wiggles -- as long as there are no wiggles for me out on this track."
Fan Fest Offers Driver Q&As, Entertainment ... Fans watching NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder at Daytona test sessions also have the chance to ask questions of their favorite drivers plus enjoy an afternoon and evening at Daytona's NEXTEL FANZONE on Saturday and Sunday. Among the Fan Fest opportunities: Driver question and answer sessions, show cars, bands, a silent auction, displays and pit-stop demonstrations. Cost is $10 for each session. Fans can watch each day's test at no cost, beginning at 9 a.m.