NASCAR JACKSON HEWITT PRESEASON THUNDER AT DAYTONA -- DAY ONE * In midst of changes, Earnhardt Jr. enjoying start of 2006 season * New Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS debut at Daytona * New teams and driver combinations getting ...
NASCAR JACKSON HEWITT PRESEASON THUNDER AT DAYTONA -- DAY ONE
* In midst of changes, Earnhardt Jr. enjoying start of 2006 season
* New Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS debut at Daytona
* New teams and driver combinations getting acquainted
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 9, 2006) -- Daytona Beach residents were greeted with a familiar sound on Monday morning -- the sound of race engines revving at Daytona International Speedway.
The first day of NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder at Daytona testing sessions began Monday at 9 a.m., featuring teams ranked in the odd-numbered positions in the 2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series car owner point standings (as of July 13, 2005).
Just one day into the preseason test session, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) has already taken a proactive approach to the coming season.
"We've been looking forward to getting here and testing," Earnhardt said. "We're seeing what our cars are like, seeing [results of] all the hard work the guys in the shop have been doing [in the off-season] and seeing how that's going to pay off."
Coming off his worst finish in the point standings (19th) and a turbulent season that included two crew chief changes, Earnhardt reunited with former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. at the end of 2005 and the pair will begin 2006 together. Eury Jr. helped guide Earnhardt to a third-place finish in the final 2003 standings and a fifth-place finish in 2004.
"It feels good to work with Tony Eury Jr. again," Earnhardt said. "It feels good to go into the shop and talk to him about the cars -- and when he talks about his cars he's talking about my cars, too."
A few hours into the first day of testing, the combination was beginning to pay off. Earnhardt posted the seventh-fastest time of the morning session, with a fast lap of 48.484 seconds (185.628 mph).
Earnhardt says he isn't fazed by the changes in the sport over the past few years, or the changes on his own team. Dale Earnhardt Inc. remains a two-car team in 2006, with two-time NASCAR Busch Series champion Martin Truex Jr. running for Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors in the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet.
"The group I had last year is really talented and it was hard to settle for just getting a couple of them [on my team] this year," Earnhardt said. "People come and go. This sport changes so fast one year to the next. Both [DEI] teams are full of experience and knowledge. I feel like both will be pretty formidable and that we'll work pretty well together. We want to get into victory lane as fast as we can and start knocking off some wins."
With the off-season coming to an end, Earnhardt said it's time to put the lessons learned in 2005 to the test -- and that he's still progressing as a driver.
"I've learned that there were certain events where I got more out of the car -- and myself -- than I knew I had," Earnhardt said. "I've got confidence in myself, but I don't know if I've realized my potential, personally. I don't know exactly how capable of driving a race car I am. I still think there's a lot more to learn and a lot more to know about exactly what I'm feeling [in the car] and how to get that to go around the race track as fast as I can. I feel like I learned a lot last year.
"You can always improve as a driver," Earnhardt said. "I think my determination and drive is solid. With what I've got to look forward to this season, I won't have a problem getting up in the morning and getting in the race car."
Other drivers attending this week's test session include Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), who finished fifth in the 2005 Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup; sixth-place finisher Ryan Newman (No. 12 Alltel Dodge), seventh-place finisher Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford) and ninth-place finisher Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge).
Those 2005 Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup participants are joined by four-time series champion and defending Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford), Jeff Burton (No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet), Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge), two-time Daytona 500 champion Bill Elliott (No. 36 MB2 Motorsports Chevrolet), Kenny Wallace (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet), Mike Skinner (No. 23 Dodge) and Jeff Fuller (No. 80 Chevrolet).
Reigning NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion Tony Stewart (No. 20 The Home Depot Chevrolet) is not attending this week's session but his team has brought in veteran driver Mike McLaughlin to put Stewart's Chevrolet through its paces.
For some teams, Monday's test was an opportunity to get acquainted. Bobby Labonte (No. 43 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge), Ken Schrader (No. 21 Little Debbie Ford) and Scott Wimmer (No. 4 Aero Exhaust Chevrolet) tested with their new teams for the first time, while Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidates Martin Truex Jr. (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet), Reed Sorenson (No. 41 Target Dodge) and David Stremme (No. 40 Coors Light/Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon Dodge) continued their orientation in NASCAR's premier series.
New makes and models tested ... Monday's test session included the debut of the all-new Ford Fusion race car. It's the first time Ford has simultaneously introduced a new passenger car along its NASCAR racing counterpart since the Ford Torino in 1968. Robert Yates Racing driver Elliott Sadler praised the new design. "I really like the new Ford Fusion," Sadler said. "It's a sportier car. I'm really happy with everything. When we unloaded the cars this morning, we knew the Fusion was going to be fast. We think it's going to be very good aerodynamically. As driver and a team, we need to learn how to use it to its full effect." Ford has won 10 Daytona 500s, most recently by Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford) in 2000. Also new on Monday was the Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS body. Although Chevrolet's new design doesn't represent an entire new model, the car's nose and tail sections have been updated.
Fan Fest offers fans Q&As with drivers, entertainment ... Each Tuesday during NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder at Daytona, fans have the opportunity for an afternoon and evening of fun at Daytona International Speedway's NEXTEL FANZONE. Fan Fest will feature driver question and answer sessions, bands, show cars, pit-stop demonstrations, a silent auction and displays. The cost is $15 for each Fan Fest. Fans also can watch each day's test session for free, beginning at 9 a.m.
Jan. 10: NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Fan Fest
Jan 13: NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Fan Fest
Jan. 17: NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Fan Fest
Jan. 21: NASCAR Busch Series Fan Fest
Jeff Gordon leads Monday morning session ... Defending Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) picked up right where he left off in February 2005, by posting the fastest times of the first test session on Monday morning. Gordon's fastest lap of 48.121 seconds (187.029 mph) topped the charts, while his teammate Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) was second fastest in the morning, at 48.147 seconds (186.928 mph). Complete times and speeds for each day's test sessions are available to media members at www.nascarmedia.com.
Preseason testing continues ... NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series testing continues at Daytona Jan. 10-11 and resumes Jan. 16-18, with the even-ranked teams in the 2005 car owner point standings. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series tests from Jan. 13-Jan. 15 while the NASCAR Busch Series tests from Jan. 20- 22.
Session I: All NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series teams in odd positions in car owner point standings as of July 13, 2005
What: NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder testing for the 2006 Daytona 500
Where: Daytona International Speedway.
Track Layout: 2.5-mile tri-oval superspeedway.
When: Monday, Jan. 9 through Wednesday, Jan. 11.
Times: 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Includes one-hour lunch break from noon until 1 p.m.
Who: Jimmie Johnson, Mike McLaughlin, Elliott Sadler, Ryan Newman, Jeremy Mayfield, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Burton, Kasey Kahne, David Stremme, Reed Sorenson, Ken Schrader, Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott, Jeff Fuller, Mike Skinner, Kenny Wallace and Scott Wimmer.