Winston Cup series back on the track

The 2003 NASCAR season kicks off this week at Daytona International Speedway with the first of two critical pre-season test sessions. Three days of testing have been planned (a fourth alternate day has been set aside in case of rain) as 20 NASCAR...

The 2003 NASCAR season kicks off this week at Daytona International Speedway with the first of two critical pre-season test sessions. Three days of testing have been planned (a fourth alternate day has been set aside in case of rain) as 20 NASCAR teams descended on the speedway this morning at 9:00 a.m.

This is the first opportunity teams have to test the common template rule NASCAR has put into effect this year. All car makes will have the same 1.5- inch nose kickout of the front air dam. All four makes, which have to mount their bodies on the same reference point, will also use the identical rear spoiler package: 6.25 inches high by 57 inches wide at a 55-degree angle.

The Ford Taurus has a new tail and nosepiece, while Chevy's and Pontiac's have entirely new models this year. The Dodge's remain essentially the same with the exception of the common template.

Teams will also have the opportunity to test the new fuel cell, which was debuted last season at Talladega's fall event. Cars will run a 13.5 fuel cell at the season opener, instead of the usual 22-gallon cell. The smaller cells will be used for all NASCAR Winston Cup events during Speedweeks.

Among the teams in Daytona for the three-day test are Bobby LaBonte, Michael Waltrip, Jamie McMurray, Steve Park, Jimmie Johnson, and champion Tony Stewart.

Stewart and the #20 crew have a new challenge this year. Their team, Joe Gibbs Racing, who has won two championships in a Pontiac, will be switching to Chevrolet this year.

"Switching to Chevrolet is more of a gauge for us as a group, and we'll start seeing how we stack up once we get through testing at Daytona," said #20 crew chief Greg Zipadelli. "Really and truly, that was the biggest reason for the switch. We want to be able to compare ourselves to other cars."

Stewart was only 21st fastest in this morning's session.

Posting the fastest lap was No. 4 Morgan-McClure driver Mike Skinner who clocked a speed of 181.837. Elliott Sadler, Rusty Wallace, Johnny Benson and Casey Mears round out the top-5 fastest.

Those teams not participating in this first test are slated for the second round scheduled on January 14-16th, also in Daytona. They include Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman.

If you can't wait for the season opening Budweiser Shootout on February 8th, and live in the greater Volusia County area, all test sessions are free and open for public viewing. You can gain access to the speedway from Daytona USA.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Michael Waltrip , Steve Park , Mike Skinner , Ryan Newman , Casey Mears , Johnny Benson , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray , Elliott Sadler