Daytona Preseason Thunder, day 5 report

Change Of Key: Carl Edwards Tuning Up For Fresh 2007 Outlook * 2002 Daytona 500 Winner Ward Burton Back On The Track * Monday's Session Extended Because Of Morning Rains * Regan Smith Adjusting To New Teammate/Mentor Mark Martin DAYTONA ...

Change Of Key: Carl Edwards Tuning Up For Fresh 2007 Outlook

* 2002 Daytona 500 Winner Ward Burton Back On The Track

* Monday's Session Extended Because Of Morning Rains

* Regan Smith Adjusting To New Teammate/Mentor Mark Martin

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 15, 2007) -- Playing a guitar is a bit of a project for NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Carl Edwards (No. 99 Office Depot Ford), who reads chassis hiccups like sheet music and manhandles steering wheels.

But feeling his way through cords and riffs hasn't stymied Edwards. As the creator -- along with friends in his native Missouri -- of new recording label Back 40 Records, Edwards hopes to provide a boost for unknown artists who need it.

"I like the people that write their own songs and are really singing about something that they care about," Edwards said Monday prior to NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona International Speedway.

"I tell you somebody I met the other day who was really cool was Danielle Peck, the country music singer. She was really nice and it was really cool to hear her story and how hard she'd worked, and then to listen to her music."

Edwards knows the power of a big break: He has advanced from obscurity to stardom in only three years with Roush Racing. And as this week's second session of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup preseason testing begins at Daytona, he's searching for a way back to the top of the series charts.

"There were times last year where I thought, 'Man, what am I doing wrong here?'" said Edwards, who followed 2005's third-place finish with last season's frustrating 12th-place effort.

A crew-chief change from Bob Osborne to Wally Brown, then back to Osborne for 2007 seems to have settled things, allowing Edwards to pursue a comeback -- plus his new role as music mogul.

"We've got our record label going so I've been listening to that stuff -- all the Back 40 artists -- everything, man," Edwards said. "The last really neat CD that I got -- and I got to meet the guys -- was the Robert Randolph band. I thought that was a great CD, so that's probably what I've listened to the most, lately."

Edwards, who jammed onstage with the band in December's NASCAR Busch Series Awards Banquet performance, grew up listening to his father and two uncles strum guitars at family reunions. His own tastes took a historical turn -- borrowing heavily from his parents'.

"When I was about 14, I found a record player and some records that they'd stacked away in the basement," Edwards said, "and it was like John Denver, and Simon and Garfunkel -- stuff like that. So for a long time, I never listened to current music. I was probably 17 when I started driving my car and I'd listen to whatever was on the radio."

***

This Way, Please: Ward Burton Sees 'New' Daytona ... As a former Daytona 500 champion, Ward Burton (No. 4 State Water Heaters Chevrolet) would seem to require no introduction to one of the sport's signature tracks. But a two-year absence combined with Daytona's recent infield renovations meant he was in for quite a surprise Monday.

"It is certainly quite a bit different than the old traditional way but probably for the better," Burton said of Daytona's now-two-year-old, state-of-the-art garages and NEXTEL Fan Zone.

The 2002 Daytona 500 champion's last fulltime season was 2004. He sat out the 2005 and 2006 seasons -- tending to family and charity work -- before committing to return this year with Morgan-McClure Motorsports. A rental-car snafu meant catching a ride to the track early Monday with his public relations representative, Diane Hawkins, who reported Burton's wide-eyed reaction.

"He said, 'Boy, they really have changed this place,'" Hawkins said.

Once inside, the veteran had no trouble relocating his driving touch. With Monday's morning session delayed by rain showers, teams were scheduled to test until 5:30 p.m., with no formal lunch break. That was fine for Burton, who munched a sandwich during a few minutes out of his car.

"It's a lot of fun," he said of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup competition. "I obviously missed driving. I'm a little concerned about where we are at on the preparation for this race and where the speeds are at right now. Racing is something I was brought up doing and I love it, but I also want to be competitive doing it."

***

Package Deal: Denny Hamlin Works The Fed Ex Line ... As a new take on what-I-did-during-my-off-season, Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet) literally put the sponsor color on his cars to work over the holidays, doing more than just greeting folks during a Dec. 19 visit to Federal Express' Memphis, Tenn., hub.

Yes, he signed hundreds of autographs, chatted with employees and just plain visited -- as he had the previous December. But he also jumped in to help during the madness of the company's busiest week of the year -- sorting packages alongside FedEx workers.

"It's really an incredible thing, to see what is literally a waterfall of FedEx packages coming down at you as you try to sort them," Hamlin said of the exercise. "Last year I wasn't prepared at all for the number of packages but this year I knew what to expect and I think I held my own out there."

Certainly his recognition factor preceded him this time, thanks to a third-place finish in the final 2006 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings and Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors.

"It means a lot to me to go there and lend a hand during the holiday season," Hamlin said, "because these are the employees that have supported me along the way and I want them to know how much I appreciate it."

***

Pit Stops: Around The Daytona Garage

Rain Alters Monday's Schedule ... Early-morning showers forced nearly a two-hour delay Monday as teams waited to begin the second week of preseason testing at Daytona. The noon lunch hour was cancelled, with teams scheduled to run straight through until 5:30 p.m. Regular test hours are from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.

***

Calling Mr. Martin: Regan Smith Awed By New Mentor ... Their cars occupy next-door garage bays and their uniforms are identical. But the similarity between Ginn Racing drivers Regan Smith and Mark Martin ends there, according to the former, who plans to lean on Martin's wisdom as he embarks on his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup season.

The two will split time in the No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet this season, with Martin driving it for 22 races. For Smith, who also will drive the No. 39 Chevrolet, the first step was the worst -- calling Martin. He admits needing a few days to psych himself up last October, once he realized Martin would become his new teammate.

"I kind of compared the call to a qualifying lap in Atlanta or someplace where we run wide open," Smith said. "When you come in after a good lap in Atlanta, your hands should be shaking and the palms sweaty. And that's just the way I felt after the phone call with Mark -- my hands were indeed shaking and sweaty. I am not ashamed to say that I was awestruck when I first called him."

The two have since tested together at Lakeland, Fla., with the 23-year-old Smith spending quality learning time with the 48-year-old Martin. Smith is scheduled to debut in the No. 01 at Bristol on March 25. He'll also attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500 in the No. 39.

"He's eager and wants to learn," Martin said. "But at the same time, he knows that patience is vital in enjoying future success."

***

FAST FACTS

Session I: NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series teams in even positions in car owner standings as of July 12, 2006

What: NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder testing for the 2007 Daytona 500

Where: Daytona International Speedway

Track Layout: 2.5-mile tri-oval.

When: Monday, Jan. 15 through Thursday, Jan. 17.

Times: 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Who: David Reutimann, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Ward Burton, Kyle Busch, David Ragan, Clint Bowyer, Mike Wallace, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, Matt Kenseth, J.J. Yeley, Elliott Sadler, Ken Schrader, Mike Skinner, Jeff Gordon, Stanton Barrett, Jeff Burton, Jeremy Mayfield, David Gilliland, Regan Smith, David Stremme, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Petty, Mike Bliss, Michael Waltrip, James Hylton, Johnny Sauter, Brandon Whitt, Kenny Wallace, AJ Allmendinger, Kevin Lepage and Carl Edwards.

-credit: nascar

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya