NASCAR JACKSON HEWITT PRESEASON THUNDER AT DAYTONA -- DAY 12

* Quick learners: 2006 NASCAR Busch Series rookie class gets a grip at Daytona

* Contenders for Daytona emerge from testing; Sauter, Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet lead the way

* Preseason Thunder resumes at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in February

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 22, 2006) -- The 2005 NASCAR Busch Series Raybestos Rookie class was arguably the best in the 17-year history of the award. Carl Edwards (No. 60 Ameriquest/Henkel Ford) won the honor, but was pushed race-to-race by the likes of Denny Hamlin (No. 20 Rockwell Automation Chevrolet), Reed Sorenson (No. 41 Discount Tire Co. Dodge) and Jon Wood (No. 47 Wisk Ford).

This season, as those former rookies are prepared to challenge for the NASCAR Busch Series championship, a new crop of rookie drivers is ready to step in to the series spotlight.

A.J. Foyt IV (No. 38 Great Clips Dodge), Todd Kluever (No. 06 3M Ford), Burney Lamar (No. 77 Dollar General Chevrolet), Mark McFarland (No. 88 U.S. NAVY Chevrolet) and Danny O'Quinn Jr. (No. 50 World Financial Group Ford) are the top rookie candidates in 2006.

Each of them made their first laps around Daytona International Speedway this weekend during NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder at Daytona testing. And all were impressive in their debuts according to Joe Balash, the NASCAR Busch Series Director.

"The rookies are showing a lot of maturity," Balash said. "They've been respecting the other drivers out on the race track and are doing what they need to do to get a lot of seat time and get a good feel for the track and for their race car."

O'Quinn and Lamar were the most consistent of the rookies. Lamar posted top 10 laps in each of his three single-car runs, while O'Quinn had two top-10 runs, including a rookie-best third in the morning session on Sunday (49.543 seconds; 181.247 mph).

Although each acknowledged their current position as the requisite "dream come true" -- O'Quinn was discovered during the most recent version of Jack Roush's "Gong Show" -- each rookie driver is well aware of the stout equipment each is in and the expectations surrounding them. They also don't lack for confidence when it comes down to being competitive at this level and aiming for the 2006 NASCAR Busch Series Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award.

"We're all in good equipment, and I know each one of them is going to be tough," O'Quinn said of his fellow rookies. "I think [our team] is up for the task. We want to win rookie of the year and that's one of our main goals. I know Todd is going to be running for it, and he's my teammate [with Roush Racing]. We're both in the same equipment, and it's up to us to make the most of it."

"It's going to be a great rookie class this year," said Kluever, who won the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award last year in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and finished 11th in the championship standings. "It's definitely going to be tough ... a lot tougher than I went through last year in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. I'm not going to say I'm better than those guys or anything like that, but I just think I have a little bit more experience which I think will help me, especially at the start of the season when these guys are just starting to understand what they're going to get into. By mid-season that will all even out. By then it will be whose team gels the best and can produce the results."

Lamar, who will drive for 2001 NASCAR Busch Series champion Kevin Harvick, agrees about the talent level among the rookies. "I know there is a lot of talent out there and they all are in really good equipment," he said. "I look forward to racing with them. There are a lot of great kids and they are all in the same shoes I am. I think we're all so excited to be here."

Andretti runs first full year in NASCAR Busch Series ... Although not a rookie, John Andretti (No. 10 FreedomRoads Racing Ford) can consider himself a "pseudo-rookie" in the NASCAR Busch Series. The veteran of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup competition who has two career wins in the premier series has run only once before in the NASCAR Busch Series, when he started 11th and finished 13th to open the season at Daytona in 1998. Andretti, the nephew of 1967 Daytona 500 winner Mario Andretti, is joined by other first-year series competitors not in the running for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award: Paul Tracy (No. 34 Sport Clips Chevrolet), who has a five-race schedule; Steve Wallace (No. 64 Jackson Roscoe Foundation Dodge) who will share the No. 64 Dodge with Jamie McMurray and the young duo of Stephen Leicht and Matt McCall, who are scheduled to share the No. 90 CitiFinancial Ford with Elliott Sadler.

Playing favorites -- Sauter, Chevrolet dominate testing ... If the just-concluded three-day NASCAR Busch Series test at Daytona is any indication for race favorites for the Hershey's Kissables 300 on Feb. 18, Johnny Sauter (No. 00 Yellow Transportation Chevrolet), or drivers in Chevrolets overall look to have the upper hand. Sauter led four of the five single-car testing runs through Sunday's morning sessions, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Kraft Chevrolet), a two-time NASCAR Busch Series champion and a four-time series winner at Daytona, topped the other single-car speed chart. Sauter's top lap came during the afternoon session on Saturday, 49.049 seconds; 183.490 mph. Earnhardt had the fastest single-car lap of the three-day test, clocking a lap of 48.977 (183.872 mph) to kick off testing on Friday morning. Chevrolet drivers captured the top spot in three of the four drafting sessions through Sunday morning's test runs with Kyle Busch (No. 5 Lowe's Chevrolet), Denny Hamlin (No. 20 Rockwell Automation Chevrolet) and Jeff Burton (No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet) leading the way; Hamlin's lap of 48.025 (187.402 mph) on Saturday afternoon was the fastest in the draft. Aaron Fike (No. 43 Curb-Agajanian Dodge) was the only non-Chevrolet to lead a test session through Sunday morning, posting a fast lap of 48.060 seconds (187.266 mph) in the initial afternoon draft session on Friday.

Kluever has big shoes to fill ... Todd Kluever allowed himself to look to the future a bit on Sunday during NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder at Daytona. The 27-year-old native of Sun Prairie, Wis., who has used the NASCAR ladder system to his advantage, is scheduled to take over the No. 6 AAA Ford NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series ride from Roush Racing teammate -- and mentor -- Mark Martin following the 2006 season. "My timetable is a full NASCAR Busch Series schedule this year, plus seven NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races and then next year I'll do double duty," Kluever said. "I'm really excited about the future. It's been kind of laid out for me; I guess it's mine to lose now. If we can run like I know we can this year, it'll be a pretty smooth transition into the 6 car. There will be some big shoes to fill there. As long as people let me be Todd Kluever in the 6 car and not [expect me to be] Mark Martin, I'll be okay. There's never going to be another Mark Martin and I hope they understand that when I get in the 6 car."

Sauter, Busch lead Saturday's morning sessions ... Johnny Sauter's lap of 49.115 seconds (183.243 mph) during the single-car test session on Sunday morning was the fastest lap among 34 drivers while Jeff Burton posted a fast draft lap of 48.909 (184.015 mph), also in the morning. Complete lap times from each test session can be accessed by media members at www.nascarmedia.com.

Preseason Thunder testing continues in Las Vegas ... Preseason Thunder testing for the NASCAR Busch Series continues in two weeks at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Drivers can test during two days of the three-day session that runs from Feb. 6--8. NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers will kick off the test session at Las Vegas from Jan. 30--Feb. 1.

Fast Facts

What: NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder at Daytona testing for the 2006 NASCAR Busch Series Hershey's Kissables 300 on February 18.

When: Jan. 20--22.

Where: Daytona International Speedway.

Track Layout: 2.5-mile tri-oval superspeedway.

Fastest Times: Jan. 20 -- AM Single Car
Dale Earnhardt Jr., 48.947 seconds; 183.872 mph

Jan. 20 -- PM Single Car
Johnny Sauter, 49.301; 182.552

Jan. 20 -- PM Drafting
Aaron Fike, 48.060; 187.266

Jan. 21 -- AM Single Car
Johnny Sauter 49.228; 182.823

Jan. 21 -- AM Drafting
Kyle Busch 48.153; 186.904

Jan. 21 -- PM Single Car
Johnny Sauter, 49.049; 183.490

Jan. 21 -- PM Drafting
Denny Hamlin, 48.025; 187.402

Jan. 22 -- AM Single Car
Johnny Sauter, 49.115; 183.243

Jan. 22 -- AM Drafting
Jeff Burton, 48.909; 184.015

-nascar-