NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 5: Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte Ready For Fresh Starts in 2005 DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 19, 2005) -- With a season of change behind them, NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series veterans Jeff Burton (No. 31 Cingular Chevrolet) and...
NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 5: Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte Ready For Fresh Starts in 2005
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 19, 2005) -- With a season of change behind them, NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series veterans Jeff Burton (No. 31 Cingular Chevrolet) and Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet) are ready for a season of fine-turning.
Both drivers experienced team changes in 2004 -- Burton departing Roush Racing to join Richard Childress Racing, and Labonte adjusting to a new crew chief at midseason. And both finished below where they're accustomed in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series point standings -- Burton in 18th place and Labonte in 12th place.
So for 2005, regaining NASCAR Top 10 status is a primary goal.
"I feel good about where my team's headed," said Burton, who joined RCR last August. "I think our pit crew will be as good as anybody on pit road. (Crew chief) Kevin (Hamlin) and I are getting along extremely well. We have very progressive engineering and shock programs. I feel good about it. But I've gone into most years feeling good about those years, too. All in all I'm confident. We do have a lot of questions that need to be answered."
Perhaps Labonte's primary question has been answered: He begins 2005 with a new crew chief, Steve Addington. Last year's crew chief switch in midseason was a change that resonated with the No. 18 team for some time and stability remains a priority.
"That was the biggest thing that happened to us," said Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion. "If we don't do that again, we'll be better off and that's what we plan on not doing. We also have to know we have to be more competitive. We have to finish races better than we have been and than we did last year to be in the top 10 in points."
Burton and Labonte discussed their situations during Wednesday's lunch break for NASCAR Preseason Thunder, the annual preseason test sessions. Drivers who finished in even number positions in the final 2004 car owner points are testing Jan. 18-20 at Daytona International Speedway, while divers who finished in odd number positions in the final 2004 car owner point tested last week at Daytona.
Both are optimistic as they prepare for the season-opening Daytona 500; both also plan to coax more speed from what they've seen thus far in testing. As drivers with plenty of Daytona experience, Burton and Labonte know careful, gradual preparations usually yield reliable results.
"Hopefully we can improve throughout the week and go home and pull out the rest of the stops that we have left that we didn't bring here," Labonte said, "and then come back and be faster that we are here today." "We knew coming down here that we weren't going to be blistering fast in qualifying trim," Burton said. "We feel really good about how our cars are going to draft and the way they're going to race. And we feel good about qualifying, too. We have a lot of things going on between now and when we come back. Our goal was to be 18th, 19th-fastest this week. I know that sounds stupid, but we think we can do that when we come back and be in great shape."
For Burton, it's been a busy off-season. Last week he participated in a road-course test at Mexico City's Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez; the test was in advance of the Mexico 200 on March 6, the first NASCAR Busch Series points event to be held outside the United States.
"The facility is public, so during the day when there's not an event, there are people bicycling and running," Burton said. "It's really cool with soccer fields and basketball fields. There are thousands of people out there."
He's also jumped headlong into a leadership role at RCR, hoping to buoy teammates Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Goodwrench Chevrolet), who's beginning his fifth season at RCR and new addition Dave Blaney (No. 07 Jack Daniels Chevrolet). The mandate? Return RCR to perennial NASCAR Top 10 competition.
"The timing is good because we've got Dave Blaney who wants to prove a point," Burton said. "A lot of people ask why he (Childress) hired Blaney. I think you're going to find out why Richard Childress hired Dave Blaney. You've got me, who is used to running in the front and who hasn't for the last few years. I want to prove a point. Harvick did not have the year he wanted to have last year. He wants to prove a point. Richard has a lot to prove too. I think that's going to prove really good for everybody."
NEWS OF NOTE
On tap for Thursday ... Media covering Day Nine of NASCAR Preseason Thunder will meet with MB2/MBV Motorsports teammates Joe Nemechek (No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet) and Scott Riggs (No. 10 Valvoline Chevrolet) from 8-8:20 a.m. Brian Vickers (No. 25 GMAC Financing Chevrolet) visits from 8:30-8:50 a.m. During Thursday's lunch break, Dave Blaney visits the Daytona media center from noon-12:20 p.m. Rusty Wallace (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) is scheduled to drop by from 12:30-12:50 p.m.
Kahne ready for sophomore season ... It's hard to improve on a rookie year that included Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors, but Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) finished 13th in the final point standings, and was among the drivers who contended for a spot in the inaugural "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup." He also had several oh-so-close finishes that nearly became his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series win, and the first step toward that goal is the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 20.
Plus, there's research to do on the Dodge Charger, which returns to the track this season, and the desire to erase last year's Daytona 500; Kahne finished 41st thanks to engine trouble.
"The track is great, and I think our new Dodge Charger is a lot better than what we had last year," Kahne said. "I don't know if it is for everybody, but that was probably our weakest point at Evernham Motorsports. The guys did an awesome job over the winter to really work on that (superspeedway program). Our car isn't the fastest, but it's driving really well and it goes over the bumps really good. It's a lot better than it was last year."
He's also likes the renovated Daytona infield, which includes new NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series and NASCAR Busch Series garages, and outer garage bay windows in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series garage that allow fans to watch crews work on cars.
"The garage area is pretty cool for the fans, especially with the windows in the garage areas," Kahne said. "They can watch what's going on there. I think it's pretty cool how Daytona upgraded and made a pretty cool pit area."
Bill Elliott back at Daytona ... Among Wednesday's announcements was the news that 1988 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion Bill Elliott will participate in the Feb. 12 Budweiser Shootout. He'll run the No. 39 Coors Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. It's a one-time partnership that has the blessing of Elliott's team owner Ray Evernham of Evernham Motorsports. Elliott said he will embark on second season of running a limited schedule of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series events for Evernham in 2005.
Robby Gordon's new sponsor ... More Wednesday news: Robby Gordon, who will compete this season as an owner-driver in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, announced that Jim Beam Brands Co. will be Robby Gordon Motorsports' primary sponsor for a designated number of races, and an associate sponsor for other races. Gordon will drive the No. 7 Jim Beam Chevrolet in the Daytona 500.
Wednesday's fastest driver ... Joe Nemechek (No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet) topped the morning session, posting a high speed of 185.605 mph. Nemechek's MB2/MBV Motorsports teammate Scott Riggs was fastest in the afternoon at 186.097.
What: NASCAR Preseason Thunder.
Where: Daytona International Speedway.
When: Jan. 11-24.
Track layout: 2.5-mile tri-oval superspeedway.
Test schedule: Jan. 18-20 -- NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series (Even-number car owner 2004 point standings finishing positions); Jan. 22-24 -- NASCAR Busch Series.