Daytona Preseason Thunder, day 2 report

NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder at Daytona - Day Two * Determined Gordon eyeing 2006 rebound, has high hopes for new-look team * Johnson wants a title, more consistency in 2006 DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 10, 2006) -- Change is good when...

NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder at Daytona - Day Two
* Determined Gordon eyeing 2006 rebound, has high hopes for new-look team
* Johnson wants a title, more consistency in 2006

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 10, 2006) -- Change is good when it recharges and refreshes. And change -- as startling as the color adorning his car -- is exactly what defending and three-time Daytona 500 champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) has embraced early in 2006.

His Hendrick Motorsports team is among the group participating in NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder at Daytona testing sessions at Daytona International Speedway. Tuesday marked Day 2 for teams ranked in the odd-numbered positions in the 2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series car owner point standings (as of July 13, 2005), and Gordon already appears game-faced.

"It's not that we should win a championship every year," Gordon said, "but we certainly should be contending for race wins and on a fairly consistent basis and we should be up and battling in that championship in some way throughout the year. That's what we should be doing."

That goal eluded Gordon in 2005. A season that began with such promise -- his third career Daytona 500 win -- ended with the four-time series champion in 11th place -- his worst result since finishing 14th his rookie season of 1993.

Perhaps the biggest sting was not being a part of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, after Gordon had finished third overall in 2004.

"Yeah, it tears our confidence down a little bit and it makes us scratch our heads and sometimes we don't always go in the right direction," said Gordon, who was second-fastest in Tuesday's morning session at 186.734 mph. "But we never stop searching for what we've got to do to turn it back around. Sometimes you've got to take big steps to turn it around and sometimes it's just right there and you're just missing one little ingredient."

In Gordon's case, big changes seem a solution. Former car chief Steve Letarte replaced Robbie Loomis as crew chief for the final 10 races last season, and the mixing, matching and influx of new faces continues for the No. 24 team. Only jackman Jeff Cook retains his 2005 position on Gordon's pit crew; other crew members have been shifted and new personnel have joined the squad.

The precedent was set late last year, when Gordon finished with one win, three top fives and five top 10s in the final 10 races -- his first events under Letarte's stewardship.

"We made a lot of changes and then changed some cars, changed some different things," Gordon said. "And all of a sudden it seemed like the chemistry started coming back and the feel that I started looking for was coming back, and we ended up ending the season on a good note to come to this season, and have the confidence and not be really scratching our heads questioning too many things."

Letarte's first full season as crew chief promises to be interesting. It also might be very successful. Just 26 years old, the Portland, Maine, native is a 10-year veteran of Gordon's crew, and Gordon says he has transitioned well from being a team member to becoming the boss.

"That's the part I've been most impressed with is he's been pretty sharp in business away from racing, as well," Gordon said. "And he's treated this like a business, which I think is smart. And he came right in there and took control and got the guys that support him to support him more and the guys that didn't to either support him or they were out the door."

As Gordon prepares for the 48th annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 19, he knows more changes may occur. He also knows the blueprint already might be in place, and more trips to Victory Lane, not far behind.

"I've far exceeded anything that I ever dreamed I would have accomplished in racing," Gordon said. "Now it's just about giving my best every single weekend and hoping that that does it to get to victory lane and to win championships, because I know that I'm surrounded by the best, the best people and the best equipment."

Time for a title: Johnson ready for career statement ... Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) allotted part of his off season to a walk on the wild side -- perhaps a precursor to what he hopes will be a wildly successful 2006.

Johnson and his wife, Chandra, visited South Africa on a safari, a welcome break from the racing world. Now that he's back behind the wheel, he says he's refreshed and refueled for the one thing that's eluded him in his four-year NASCAR NEXTEL Cup career.

"I'm very proud of this race team year after year," said Johnson, who like his teammate and car-owner Jeff Gordon, drives for Hendrick Motorsports. "They want to compete for a championship. I think it's something that we're all focusing on. I think everybody saw the intensity in how bad we wanted the championship last year. It didn't come through and it was very frustrating going through all that. But it just wasn't our year."

Johnson finished fifth last season after two straight seasons as the series runner-up, and a fifth-place finish as a Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate in 2002. Last year's finish was particularly frustrating because Johnson entered the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in second place in the Chase standings behind eventual champion Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet).

A tire problem on Lap 127 put Johnson out of the race, and out of the championship picture. It also sparked talk of crew chief Chad Knaus' departure, but Johnson says that was never an option, although there are several new crew faces around the No. 48 garage.

"Really, there was not any internal talk," Johnson said. "There was not any discussion about a different crew chief, ever, and those rumors were something that we kind of laughed about and joked about."

On Tuesday, Johnson topped the morning's test session with a top speed of 186.966 mph. Signs, no doubt, that he and Knaus are back, and more determined than ever.

"I'm showing up every day and giving 100% and I know my team is," Johnson said. "We'll just keep plugging away. It's got to happen sooner or later."

Now testing: This week's roster ... Drivers attending this week's test session include Jimmie Johnson, 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 Jeff Gordon, 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 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.

Also on-site are Bobby Labonte (No. 43 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge), Ken Schrader (No. 21 Little Debbie Ford) and Scott Wimmer (No. 4 Aero Exhaust Chevrolet). All three are testing with their new teams for the first time. 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) also are busy at Daytona this week.

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

Elliott, Labonte post top-five times ... In addition to Jimmie Johnson's and Jeff Gordon's one-two standing, respectively, atop Tuesday morning's speed charts, two-time Daytona 500 champion Bill Elliott was fourth fastest at 186.374 (48.290 seconds). He also was sixth fastest at 185.778 mph (48.445 seconds). Bobby Labonte was fifth fastest at 186.047 mph (48.375 seconds).

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.

Fast Facts

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.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Jeremy Mayfield , Tony Stewart , Mike Skinner , Ken Schrader , Jeff Fuller , Kenny Wallace , Ryan Newman , Mike McLaughlin , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne , Scott Wimmer , Martin Truex Jr. , David Stremme , Elliott Sadler , Reed Sorenson , Chad Knaus , Robbie Loomis
Teams Furniture Row Racing , Hendrick Motorsports