BUSCH: Preseason Thunder Day 16: Back to work

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 16: Back to work, Vegas-style LAS VEGAS (Jan. 27, 2004) -- He's got a championship behind him and a new season in front of him. As the current champion of NASCAR's premier series, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DeWALT Power ...

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 16: Back to work, Vegas-style

LAS VEGAS (Jan. 27, 2004) -- He's got a championship behind him and a new season in front of him. As the current champion of NASCAR's premier series, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DeWALT Power Tools Ford) isn't bothered by expectations, spotlights and all the obligations that seem to accompany the title.

But as NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series and NASCAR Busch Series teams continue their preseason test this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kenseth says he's prepared -- both for a title defense and another season of accomplishment.

"You want to do everything you can to be the best you can," he said during Tuesday's lunch break.

Among the group of 23 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers and 12 NASCAR Busch Series drivers who continued the western installment of NASCAR Preseason Thunder on Tuesday, Kenseth spent the day working with his NASCAR Busch Series team. He'll join his No. 17 DeWALT Power Tools team on Wednesday.

The four-day Las Vegas test is part of NASCAR Preseason Thunder, the annual preseason test sessions that began at Daytona International Speedway in early January, and will end after Thursday's afternoon session.

Numerous NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series and NASCAR Busch Series teams are testing this week, and Kenseth took time after the morning session to meet with media, and at times, sound philosophical.

"I've had a lot of fun," he said of an offseason that included last December's annual championship celebration in New York. "It's been busy."

But not too busy to think ahead.

"I've been itching to get back on the track and start racing," Kenseth admitted with a grin.

And with the season-opening Daytona 500 less than a month away, he's aware of a little extra weight on his shoulders. Last year, Kenseth and crew chief Robbie Reiser parlayed season-long excellence into their first title in NASCAR's premier series. Both intend to pursue the same high standards in 2004, but Kenseth especially wants to be a champion off the track, too.

"I think it's like anything else," Kenseth said of a champion's demands. "I think you have to be yourself. I think you have to go do the things that you know how to do and that you've always done in the sport to try to run good and be successful. I think you need to give people back as much time as possible."

Those people, according to Kenseth, are some of the most important -- fans and sponsors.

"Because without all of them, you wouldn't have the chance to be here," Kenseth added. "Even if you're tired and even if you maybe don't feel like doing certain things, I feel like you need to do extra after your championship year to keep everybody happy because it is a big honor to be in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup racing."


* On tap for Wednesday ... Media covering Wednesday's western edition of NASCAR Preseason Thunder will have the opportunity to visit with Kurt Busch (No. 97 Sharpie IRWIN Ford) and 2004 Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate Brendan Gaughan (No. 77 Kodak Dodge). Both Busch and Gaughan hail from Las Vegas, and both will meet with media during Wednesday's lunch break.

* Hard at work ... Among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers testing Tuesday was Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), who finished second last season in the NASCAR Top 10. Johnson ended the 2003 season just 90 points behind Kenseth, and he's expected to challenge for the 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title.

The UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 on March 7 at Las Vegas is the third event of the season, and the western edition of NASCAR Preseason Thunder represents the opportunity for some crucial research.

"This will get us prepared for Atlanta and coming back to Las Vegas and, really, the first quarter of the season on the intermediate tracks," Johnson said. "This is really what the meat of the season is based on, so this is a really important test for us and we wanted to be here and try to collect as much data as possible and understand what the new combination is going to mean."

This week's test is significant for two technical reasons: Teams are getting their first look at new tire compounds which will be run at several different tracks, and which are expected to wear faster, and new templates, which represent the latest aerodynamic adjustments, also are in effect.

The western edition of NASCAR Preseason Thunder isn't a NASCAR-run test, so official speeds aren't compiled. But Johnson already can see -- and feel -- the difference in tires.

"I think you're going to see maybe some track records fall with some faster qualifying speeds but the pace will slow down in the race," said Johnson, who noted that lap times seemed quicker on new tires, but fell off more quickly as tires wore out.

* Etc. ... Ricky Craven (No. 32 Tide Chevrolet) was the first driver on the track Tuesday, at 9:05 a.m. (PST). He was followed promptly by four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet).


What: NASCAR Preseason Thunder.
Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
When: Jan. 26-29.

Track layout: 1.5-mile tri-oval speedway.

Test schedule:

Jan. 26-29 -- NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series teams and NASCAR Busch Series teams.


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Drivers Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Ricky Craven , Brendan Gaughan