Preseason Thunder Day 3: McMurray/Harvick optimistic on 2004

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 3: McMurray, Harvick optimistic on '04 DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 8, 2004) -- If one good season leads to another, then Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet) and Jamie McMurray (No. 42 Texaco Havoline...

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 3: McMurray, Harvick optimistic on '04

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 8, 2004) -- If one good season leads to another, then Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet) and Jamie McMurray (No. 42 Texaco Havoline Dodge) can't wait for 2004.

The two are among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers who just completed the first session of NASCAR Preseason Thunder, the annual preseason test sessions at Daytona International Speedway, and as Harvick and McMurray prepared to wrap up their on-track activity Thursday, both waxed positive.

"We feel really good about our chances," said Harvick, who finished fifth last season in the NASCAR Top 10 and battled eventual champion Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DeWALT Power Tools Ford) down to the wire. "We've had only one change in our staff, so that's really good. That's a big key in our chances for this year. For the most part, when we came this week it just felt like we hadn't missed a beat and we just knew what everybody was doing."

McMurray, the 2003 Raybestos Rookie of the Year, was just happy to back behind the wheel -- and back at Daytona International Speedway.

"I like coming here to the town," McMurray said. "I don't know why. I like all the restaurants. It's a fun place to hang out."

While putting down research lap after research lap can be monotonous, there's more than enough of a reward -- a trip to Victory Lane. McMurray, who finished 31st in last year's Daytona 500, and 13th in the championship standings, definitely wants an improved finish in both categories. And he'd love the sense of accomplishment no doubt enjoyed by two-time and defending Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip (No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet).

"If there is one race you could put on your resume, I think the Daytona 500 would be the one you'd want," McMurray said. "I look at Michael Waltrip's car and right now it's got two-time champion on it. He's won this race twice and there's no other race we run that they declare the championship inside itself. It's a huge deal to win this race."

It's also huge to win the 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title, and Harvick certainly is considered a favorite. In fact, he included himself in a quick handicap of the 2004 field, while tabbing fellow 2003 NASCAR Top-10 finishers Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge), Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet).

"I think Ryan and Jimmie are probably two of the candidates and, obviously, Jeff Gordon," Harvick said. "I think there is just a handful of people you can name every year for the most part. We feel really good about our chances."

McMurray, who's beginning his second year with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, hopes to avoid any sophomore jinx.

"I don't feel like there's going to be a problem there, just because we ended on a strong note and the team stayed together," McMurray said. "I think when you get into problems is when people leave. It is about everybody around. I don't see a problem there, but you never know. You've got to have some luck, too."

Now in his third full season in NASCAR's premier series, Harvick hopes he's weathered all distractions and poor luck. He cited team personnel turnover and rules adjustments in previous seasons, then noted 2003's relative stability for the No. 29 team.

"With the group that we have now, I don't think we're going to give that up right off the bat," Harvick said. "It's just like being here every day of the last 10 years. You get into a rhythm and know what to expect. I think everybody on the whole team knows what to expect for the most part."

NEWS OF NOTE

* Ready to face off ... The 2004 NHL All-Star Game logo emblazoned across a race car hood might seem a curious combination, but not when a common sponsor is involved. Evernham Motorsports announced Thursday morning that Jeremy Mayfield's No. 19 UAW-Dodge Dealers Dodge will wear the 2004 NHL All-Star Game logo during the Budweiser Shootout on Feb. 7 at Daytona International Speedway. It's a natural pairing; Dodge is the primary sponsor for both Evernham teams -- Mayfield's No. 19 and 2004 Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate Kasey Kahne's No. 9 UAW-Dodge Dealers Dodge. Since 1995, the manufacturer has been a corporate partner of the NHL, providing official vehicles for the league and the NHLPA.

Mayfield compared hockey players' typical childhood introduction to the game to drivers' often-youthful starts.

"I think this is neat. You can combine these two sports together and share the ice," Mayfield said. "I think it's neat for NASCAR, the NHL and everybody involved."

"We're planning on having some fun," team owner Ray Evernham said. "I just hope Jeremy doesn't confuse the race with a hockey game and tear up a bunch of stuff."

The NHL All-Star Weekend is Feb. 2-8 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.

* Ready to face off, Part 2 ... While Mayfield is beginning his third season with Evernham Motorsports, Kahne is succeeding Bill Elliott, the 1988 series champion, on the No. 9 team. Kahne, who finished seventh in the 2003 NASCAR Busch Series top 10, is considered a rising talent, and Elliott -- who will drive the No. 9 in the Budweiser Shootout and other selected events -- will serve as Kahne's coach.

"Bill is committed to being with Kasey at a moment's notice," Evernham said. "He'll be at Daytona practically the whole time. He'll be at Rockingham and Las Vegas. We're planning on those two spending a lot of time together."

For Kahne, who plans to pull double duty in both the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series and NASCAR Busch Series, his NASCAR Preseason Thunder experience has been an eye-opener.

"It's pretty cool to do that," said Kahne of walking through garages during previous Daytona visits, "but this week coming down here and actually walking in and walking to our trailer and being part of the NEXTEL Cup side, it's pretty neat to do that. Just to be at Daytona and have a shot to run the Daytona 500 is a goal of mine. It's a dream come true."

Mayfield, who rebounded from a slow start to finish with seven top 10s in his last 12 races, plus the No. 19 position in the 2003 points standings, hopes to pick up where he stopped.

"That's the biggest thing we've got going for us," Mayfield said. "We've passed that hurdle trying to get that stability. We came together and started gelling. I have no idea how to make a team gel or what it takes to gel as a team. If you've been there and feel it come together, you know it. It's something you can't make happen."

* On tap for next week's NASCAR Preseason Thunder session ... Due to rescheduling of a drivers' meeting, next week's lineup of media guests has been altered. The new lineup will be: Tuesday -- 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte, 8:30-8:50 a.m.; Daytona International Speedway President Robin Braig, 3-3:30 p.m.; four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, 5:15-5:45 p.m. Wednesday -- 2003 NASCAR Busch Series champion Brian Vickers, who will be a rookie in the 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, 8:30-8:50 a.m.; Ryan Newman, the 2003 series leader in wins and poles, noon-12:30 p.m. (tentative); 2003 series runner-up Jimmie Johnson, 12:30-1 p.m.; NASCAR "Ironman" Ricky Rudd, 5:15-5:45 p.m. Thursday -- 1989 series champion Rusty Wallace, 12-12:30 p.m.; two-time series champion Terry Labonte, 12:30-1 p.m.

* Other visitors ... Included among Thursday's guests in the DIS media center was Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president for corporate communications. He addressed a number of current topics and issues, including discussion of possible future adjustments to the way NASCAR determines the champion of its premier series. "The list is long," Hunter said of the number of people in the NASCAR community whose opinions have been sought. "Everybody's had an opportunity to weigh in."

* Etc. ... Waltrip was the fastest driver in Thursday's morning session, at 187.535 mph. He also led the afternoon session at 187.731 -- the fastest time of the week. Teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) led the afternoon drafting session with a speed of 188.391. Ricky Craven (No. 32 Tide Chevrolet) was second at 188.316. Waltrip was ninth during the drafting session at 187.227.

Fast Facts

What: NASCAR Preseason Thunder.
Where: Daytona International Speedway. 2When: Jan. 6-22.

Track layout: 2.5-mile tri-oval.

Test schedule: Jan. 10-12 -- NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series; Jan. 13-15 -- NASCAR NEXTEL Cup (Even car owner 2003 point standings finishing positions); Jan. 17-18 -- NASCAR Busch Series (odd); Jan. 20-21 -- NASCAR Busch Series (even).

-nascar-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Terry Labonte , Jeremy Mayfield , Michael Waltrip , Kevin Harvick , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Ricky Craven , Jamie McMurray , Kasey Kahne , Brian Vickers , Ray Evernham , Chip Ganassi , Felix Sabates , Jim Hunter