Earnhardt Jr. hoping changes lead to championship

NASCAR Preseason Thunder continues for NASCAR Winston Cup Series. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 15, 2003) -- Restrictor-plate ace Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet continued with NASCAR Preseason Thunder Wednesday at Daytona ...

NASCAR Preseason Thunder continues for NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 15, 2003) -- Restrictor-plate ace Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet continued with NASCAR Preseason Thunder Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway in preparation for the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 16.

Earnhardt Jr., who has won four times on restrictor-plate tracks -- Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway -- including a season sweep at Talladega in 2002, enters the season optimistic about competing for the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. Fueling the enthusiasm is a host of off-season changes.

"I'm looking forward to this year," said Earnhardt Jr., who finished 11th in series points last year. "I think we've made some good changes. I've got two new tire changers (Phil Drye and Jay Guarneri) and a new tire carrier (Troy Prince). The guys we've got are really pumped. That's what we need and that's what makes you feel good when you're a driver."

Earnhardt Jr., who was third quickest in Thursday's morning session with a lap of 182.585 mph, also noted improvements late in 2002 resulting from a change in his attitude at tracks where he traditionally struggled to finish well.

"I learned a lot last year," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm seeing where my attitude has a big affect on performance. When I would go to Bristol, Martinsville or Darlington with a bad attitude, we'd run bad. I just really buckled down and tried to do better. I'm seeing improvements and that's given us more inspiration to try to stab at the championship this year and I feel like we can be a contender."

Earnhardt Jr. is looking forward to Daytona for Speedweeks and defending his title in the Koolerz 300 NASCAR Busch Series race.

"I love this track," said Earnhardt Jr. "Daytona is a great race track with a lot of history. There are other tracks on the circuit that are important, but Daytona is a pillar. It represents everything I like about the sport. I really like coming here."

NEWS OF NOTE

* Jarrett fastest on Wednesday ... Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford) posted the fastest lap Wednesday at 183.064 mph to lead all drivers. Jarrett has been in the top 10 in the speed charts in all four of the morning and afternoon sessions thus far.

* Ryan Newman has big goals for 2003 ... Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge) will try to follow up his rookie season, in which he won 2002 Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors, with a NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. The last time a driver won the rookie title and won the championship the following year was Dale Earnhardt in 1979 and 1980. Newman believes he has a realistic shot at the title. "Our goal for the season is (to win) the NASCAR Winston Cup championship," Newman said. Newman has been strong throughout NASCAR Preseason Thunder and is quickly making himself one of the favorites to win the 45th annual Daytona 500. On Wednesday, Newman's lap of 182.901 was second fastest of the day. "It's been pretty good," Newman added, who, along with teammate Rusty Wallace, is switching from Fords to Dodges in 2003. "Last year I think we were 30th out of 35 teams in testing and we qualified 42nd. I think the bottom line is we've learned a lot as a team and the performance from the people at Dodge, as well as the product itself, has been pretty good."

* Greg Biffle in pursuit of rookie record ... Greg Biffle (No. 16 Grainger Ford) will be attempting to accomplish a feat no other NASCAR driver has -- win rookie of the year honors in all three of NASCAR's national series. Biffle won the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 1998 and in the NASCAR Busch Series in 2001. "I'd enjoy that," said Biffle, one of six rookies in 2003. "That's one of my goals is to win rookie of the year. I'm a little bit nervous right now whether or not we're going to make the Daytona 500, but that's definitely my goal." Biffle, the 2002 NASCAR Busch Series champion, was 25th fastest out of 27 teams testing Wednesday with a fast lap of 179.386 mph.

* On tap for tomorrow ... Media covering the final day of NASCAR Preseason Thunder for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series teams will meet with veterans Mark Martin (8:15 a.m.) and Bill Elliott (8:30 a.m.) Sterling Marlin (Noon) and Dale Jarrett (12:30 p.m.) will visit the media center during lunch. Ricky Rudd will visit the media in the afternoon along with the day's fastest driver.

* Etc. ... Daytona International Speedway has an online media center available. The Speedway's online media center is your best source for Speedweeks testing and events, photos, time and scoring information, quotes, video news release schedules and much more. Go to http://www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com/media. ... All NASCAR Preseason Thunder testing sessions are open and free to the public with access to a section of the Oldfield Grandstand available through the lobby of DAYTONA USA. Tickets to Speedweeks 2003 events are available online at www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com or by calling the Speedway ticket office at (386) 253-7223.

FAST FACTS

NASCAR Preseason Thunder.
Daytona International Speedway.

Test schedule: Thursday -- NASCAR Winston Cup (Even car owner 2002 point standings finishing positions); Jan. 18-19 -- Goody's Dash Series, NASCAR Touring; Jan. 20-21 -- NASCAR Busch Series (odd); Jan. 23-24 -- NASCAR Busch Series (even).

Rain dates: Friday -- NASCAR Winston Cup (even); Jan. 22 -- NASCAR Busch Series (odd); Jan. 25 -- NASCAR Busch Series (even).

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Bill Elliott , Dale Jarrett , Rusty Wallace , Greg Biffle , Sterling Marlin , Ryan Newman , Mark Martin