Preseason Thunder Day 7: DEI dominant again at Daytona

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 7: DEI Dominant Again at Daytona John Andretti, Jimmie Johnson are quickest; Bobby Labonte eyes a Daytona 500 win. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 13, 2004) -- It's no surprise when a Dale Earnhardt Inc. car leads the...

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 7: DEI Dominant Again at Daytona
John Andretti, Jimmie Johnson are quickest; Bobby Labonte eyes a Daytona 500 win.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 13, 2004) -- It's no surprise when a Dale Earnhardt Inc. car leads the field at Daytona International Speedway, and that tradition held fast -- literally -- on Tuesday.

Driving for DEI, John Andretti (No. 1 Chevrolet) turned the quickest time (187.044 mph) during the Tuesday's morning session of NASCAR Preseason Thunder, the annual preseason test sessions at Daytona. He was second-fastest in the afternoon (187.516), trailing only Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), who led that session at 187.535.

Andretti, who finished the 2003 season driving the No. 1 car, was followed in the morning by Ken Schrader (No. 49 BAM Racing Dodge), who was second at 186.718, and Ricky Rudd (No. 21 Motorcraft Ford), who was third at 186.525. Second-year series driver Casey Mears (No. 41 Target Dodge) was fourth at 186.447, and Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) rounded out the top five at 186.393.

In the afternoon, former series champion Bill Elliott (No. 91 Dodge) was third-fastest at 187.313. Rudd was fourth at 187.270, and Schrader was fifth at 186.780.

The luxury of shared data likely benefited Andretti, whose DEI teammate Michael Waltrip (No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet), the reigning and two-time Daytona 500 champion, led all six of last week's test sessions. Waltrip also posted the fastest overall lap of 187.731. Another DEI teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), led last Thursday's drafting session.

The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series teams testing this week are the teams which finished in even-number positions in 2003 car owner points. Teams which finished in odd-number positions in 2003 car owner points tested last week (Jan 6-8).

The 2000 series champion, Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet) is among the 27 drivers testing this week, and was in playful spirits Tuesday morning as he met with media prior to the first test session. He used a digital camera to snap several impromptu photos during the interview.

Turning serious, the driver who finished eighth last season in the NASCAR Top 10 hopes to continue a renaissance. After several sub-par seasons following his title year, Labonte bounced back in 2003 with new crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain, two wins and a stellar finish. He'd like to take more significant steps this season.

"I think our consistency was off some last year," said Labonte, who won the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "We had good stretches and then we had bad stretches."

He'd like to start with a good stretch -- preferably a win in the season-opening 46th annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 15. Labonte was ninth-fastest (185.529) in the morning. He fell to 24th (185.384) in the afternoon.

"It's real important," Labonte said of Speedweeks. "We want to start the year off right. We'd like to come down here and have a good week. It can go either way."

And what he'd really like is a Daytona 500 win.

"I've been fortunate enough to win some other big races but this is one I haven't won," Labonte said. "It would be great to win this one."

NEWS OF NOTE

* On tap for Wednesday ... At 8:30 a.m., media covering Day Seven of NASCAR Preseason Thunder will meet with Brian Vickers (No. 25 GMAC Financing Chevrolet), the 2003 NASCAR Busch Series champion and a 2004 Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. At lunch, a pair of 2003 NASCAR Top 10 finishers will visit with the media. Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge) drops by the Daytona International Speedway media center at noon. He'll be followed by Johnson at 12:30 p.m. Rudd, NASCAR's "Ironman," will visit from 5:15-5:45 p.m., following the afternoon test session.

* Back at the wheel ... Four-time series champion and two-time Daytona 500 champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) was the media guest following the conclusion of Tuesday's afternoon test session. Gordon, who was sixth-fastest in the morning (185.640) and in the afternoon (186.772), said he was ready to return to work.

"It's good to be back in a car," Gordon said. "It's been a while, as short as the offseason is."

Gordon certainly got an early start on 2004. He was first on the track at 9 a.m., and relished the opportunity.

"A lot of memories," he said of Daytona International Speedway. "An awesome place."

The former series champion also is ready to return to the top of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series point standings. After capturing his fourth series title in 2001, he's using back-to-back NASCAR Top 10 finishes of fourth as motivation in 2004.

"I just feel like the team showed that look in their eyes all winter," Gordon said.

* The NASCAR Preseason Thunder Media website is online at 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. , John Andretti , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Bobby Labonte , Michael Waltrip , Ken Schrader , Ryan Newman , Casey Mears , Jimmie Johnson , Brian Vickers