Preseason Thunder Day 2: Reigning champion ready for 2004

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 2: Reigning Champion Ready for 2004 DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 7, 2004) -- Lazy days are a wonderful antidote to travel and competition, but at least one NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver couldn't wait to see ...

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 2: Reigning Champion Ready for 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 7, 2004) -- Lazy days are a wonderful antidote to travel and competition, but at least one NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver couldn't wait to see Daytona International Speedway this week.

On Wednesday, the second day of NASCAR Preseason Thunder, the annual preseason test sessions at Daytona, defending series champion Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DeWALT Ford) described his eagerness to get back to work.

"It's been a really fun offseason, but for the first time in a few years I feel like I'm ready to get back racing," said Kenseth. "It's been a really fun offseason, but it's been a tiring and a busy one, too."

Fresh off his winter break, Kenseth is among the group of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers that began 2004 on-track preparations this week at Daytona. Teams that finished in odd-number positions in 2003 owner points test this week, while those teams that finished in even-number positions in 2003 owner points test next week.

And while he enjoyed his offseason -- from NASCAR's annual Champion's Week celebration in New York, to an unprecedented four trips to watch his home-state Green Bay Packers play -- Kenseth is happy to once again slide behind the wheel at Daytona.

"For a driver, it's usually a pretty uneventful test, at least until you get to draft," said Kenseth, who posted the 19th-fastest speed (183.542 miles per hour) in Wednesday's morning session. "But everything is going okay. We're running about how we hoped we would and everything is going okay so far."

Kenseth's good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), who finished third in last year's NASCAR Top 10, also was back at work this week. As he did last season, Earnhardt Jr. is expected to challenge Kenseth again -- this time for the 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title.

"I want to win a championship," Earnhardt Jr. said. "To win one, and consider myself among all the other champions would be a great addition to my career. I want to win the Daytona 500. There are all kinds of goals. I'm having a good time driving and I've had a bad time driving. I'll take the good days over the bad days. Having fun is what's important to me and also having success at the same time."

For Earnhardt Jr., having fun means ribbing buddies like Kenseth. As one of NASCAR's most prominent drivers, the former likes the fact that the latter had to face more cameras and spotlights than usual during the offseason.

"It's good to see more demands on his time," Earnhardt Jr. said of Kenseth. "He used to pick on me all that time about all the things I had to do. So now I get to pick on him. Our friendship is pretty strong. It's the same as it's always been. We've actually had more time to talk and hang out over the last six months, believe it or not."

As for handicapping the 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship, Earnhardt Jr. tapped himself, Kenseth and two other drivers, Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge) and Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet). Newman finished sixth in the 2003 NASCAR Top 10 and Johnson finished second behind Kenseth.

"Judging by the end of last year, you've got to look at Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson," Earnhardt Jr. said. "They had a good head of steam by the end of the season last year. Me and Matt were doing pretty well. I just feel like those two teams were pretty tough."

NEWS OF NOTE

* On tap for Thursday ... At 8 a.m., Evernham Motorsports drivers Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers Dodge) and Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers Dodge) and team owner Ray Evernham will attend a special paint scheme announcement and unveiling at the Daytona media center. During the noon lunch break, 2003 Raybestos Rookie of the Year Jamie McMurray will visit with media covering 2004 NASCAR Preseason Thunder. Following McMurray at 12:30 p.m., Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet), who finished fifth in the 2003 NASCAR Top 10, will visit the media center.

* New Year's perspective ... Team owner Richard Childress spent the latter part of his holiday break doing something very out of the ordinary -- and very far out of the country. Joined by other NASCAR personalities, Childress spent five days visiting and interacting with U.S. troops in Iraq.

"When we went in and they had us a flak jacket and a helmet, you knew then it was serious and we were right in the middle of the whole thing," Childress said.

Organized by the Employee Support for the Reserve and Guard, the trip included two of Childress' drivers -- Ron Hornaday, who drives the No. 5 in the NASCAR Busch Series, and Johnny Sauter (No. 30 AOL Chevrolet), a 2004 Rayestos Rookie of the Year candidate. Others who made the trip were team owner Jack Roush, NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver Rick Crawford (No. 14 Newspapers in Education Ford), NASCAR NEXTEL Cup series driver Brendan Gaughan (No. 77 Kodak Dodge), who's another 2004 Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate, and FOX analyst Jeff Hammond.

Childress said the last leg of the one-way, 16-18-hour plane trip was by military transport on C-130s. And despite the dangers and constant reminders of war, there were many exhilarating moments. The NASCAR group slept in tents and spent most of their time with U.S. troops.

"Probably one of the neatest things we did was fly the Black Hawk helicopters right over Baghdad city and go into a lot of places," Childress said, adding that another favorite experience was visiting a base at an electrical plant where troops eagerly greeted their NASCAR visitors only hours after capturing 36 suspects in a raid.

"It was pretty amazing," Childress said. "That just made us know how strong they felt about NASCAR and how glad they were to get to see us. Because we were the first civilians to ever go up into this camp area."

The trip ended with another one-way, 16-18-hour plane trip back home, and another somber reminder.

"I think reality set in on all of us that night when they put two coffins on the airplane and we carried them back to Kuwait City with us," Childress said. "That (let us know) that this thing was for real."

* Double duty ... Wednesday's news that team owner Joe Gibbs had been named the new head coach of the Washington Redskins reverberated as much through the Daytona International Speedway garage as through the pro football world. One of Gibbs' two NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers, 2002 series champion Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) is among the drivers testing this week, and Stewart gave his boss a hearty endorsement.

* "Everybody at the team is excited for Joe," Stewart said. "It's neat to see a guy that's in the position that Joe Gibbs is in and know how hard he has worked all of his life to be where he is ... and to see a guy like him isn't ready to step down and just sit back and ride it out the rest of his life. He's ready to get back to work and get after it and play with the big boys again."

Both Stewart and Jimmy Makar, the competition director for Joe Gibbs Racing, said Gibbs flew to Daytona on Tuesday night to meet with his personnel and tell them of his decision. Gibbs will remain the owner of JGR, and son J.D. Gibbs will continue to run the organization as its president.

"The team's not going to change," Makar said. "I mean, we're going to do the same things we always did. We'll just see a little less of Joe. And that's probably about it."

NASCAR President Mike Helton was among those to wish Gibbs well.

"Joe Gibbs, first and foremost, is a class individual," Helton said. "We respect his decision to return to the Redskins, and we expect he will return that team to the top of the NFL.

"We of course wish him well. We still consider him a part of the NASCAR family. Joe built a championship organization. J.D. Gibbs is certainly capable of providing the leadership that will enable that success to continue."

Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls with the Redskins during the 1980s, will be asked to return the franchise to prominence.

"I never really followed the Redskins that much to be honest with you," said Kenseth, a Green Bay Packers fan, "but I've always heard about Joe Gibbs and how great of a coach he was, so that will be pretty cool to be able to go back and do something like that."

* Wednesday's fastest ... The second day of 2004 NASCAR Preseason Thunder produced no great surprises on the speed charts. Reigning and two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip (No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet) again led both sessions, the morning session at 185.881 mph and the afternoon

session at 186.590 mph. Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford), a three-time Daytona 500 winner and the 1999 series champion, was third in the morning at 184.809 mph and second in the afternoon at 186.058 mph. Joe Nemechek (No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet) was second in the morning at 184.828 mph and third in the afternoon at 185.510 mph.

* Another young gun ... Former NASCAR Craftsman Truck series standout Brendan Gaughn (No. 77 Kodak Dodge), who's preparing for his rookie season in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, visited with the media following Wednesday's afternoon test session.

Gaughan, who was fifth-fastest Wednesday afternoon at 185.155 mph, was quick to praise legendary driver Buddy Baker, who's helping to coach him this week.

""It's great to have a guy like Buddy Baker," Gaughn said. "When you talk about history, Buddy Baker's been there. Being fifth today has a lot to do with Buddy Baker and his help."

The Las Vegas native also hopes to learn from Penske Racing teammates Rusty Wallace (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) and Ryan Newman, who will test next week.

"I plan on asking questions and they have volumes of knowledge," Gaughn said. "So I plan on asking a lot of questions."

* Tying the knot ... Indianapolis, Ind., residents Teri Lewis and Gene Konzen beat four other other couples Wednesday in a fun contest to decide who will get married at Daytona International Speedway in February. They were selected to "Tie the Knot" just prior the Hershey's Kisses 300, the NASCAR Busch Series season-opener on Feb. 14 at Daytona.

Lewis and Konzen won a wedding package that includes tickets to the Hershey's Kisses 300 and the Daytona 500, a wedding gown, tuxedo and other items. They'll be wed before thousands of spectators in a civil ceremony.

"I did study up on Hershey's," said Konzen of the Wednesday's race-off competition at Daytona USA with the four other couples. "I know everything there is to know about Hershey's, when and where Hershey's kisses are made, the plumes, if that's the correct term. ... I even know Mr. Milton Hershey and what he's done."

* Tidbits ... Tuesday's milestones included the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series christening of the new Sunoco gas pumps. Sunoco begins 2004 as NASCAR's new racing fuel sponsor and Kenseth was the first driver to fill up at Daytona International Speedway's bright blue and gold pumps. Kasey Kahne, a 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series rookie of the year candidate, was the first driver on the track Tuesday. His No. 9 Dodge Dealers Dodge took the track at approximately 9:30 a.m.

* The NASCAR Preseason Thunder Media Site is online at http://www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com/media. Speeds, quotes, daily test reports and hi-res photos from all NASCAR Preseason Thunder test sessions are available for download.

-nascar-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Dale Jarrett , Jeremy Mayfield , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Michael Waltrip , Kevin Harvick , Joe Nemechek , Ryan Newman , Ron Hornaday Jr. , Jimmie Johnson , Rick Crawford , Jamie McMurray , Johnny Sauter , Kasey Kahne , Brendan Gaughan , Ray Evernham , Jack Roush , Mike Helton , Buddy Baker
Teams Team Penske , Joe Gibbs Racing