NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Down in Daytona 2008: Change is the Story After Day 1 of Winter Testing

Editor’s Note: Mike Lovecchio will be covering testing in a variety of ways for us this January at Daytona. His first installment, on day one, comes from a fan’s perspective – before going down to the garage later this week.

It seemed like only yesterday that the Nextel Cup series crowned Jimmie Johnson the 2007 champion, but just over one month since the season finale at Homestead, the Sprint Cup has returned this week to Florida for the first official test of 2008. Johnson led the usual cast of characters after Day 1 with a speed of 184.782 mph – but around him, change appears to be the biggest story coming out of Daytona this winter.

In the first session of the month, odd-numbered teams in the owner points standings following last year’s Chicagoland race debuted the Car of Tomorrow for the first time on the high banks of Daytona. Among the drivers taking part in the first session were some familiar faces, including: Casey Mears, Kyle Busch, JJ Yeley, Travis Kvapil, Jeremy Mayfield and Mark Martin. But with each of these aforementioned drivers dawning new teams, sponsors, and numbers, it’s safe to say that the only drivers fans placed with their cars were Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and maybe a few others.

As a young Daytona Beach native, I have always enjoyed winter testing simply because I haven’t seen cars on the track since the Pepsi 400 in July. Every year for each of the past few years, I have done the same thing as every other NASCAR fan in Daytona: walk through Daytona USA, sit in the Oldfield grandstand and watch each car go by, one by one, until I realize that testing isn’t exactly as exciting as I had falsely hoped. I decided to begin testing the same way again this year – but never have I seen so much change at both the Speedway and for the series.

That Daytona USA that I used to walk though is now called the Daytona 500 Experience – and the Pepsi signs that have historically been located around the outside of the track are now that of Coca-Cola. Inside the track, the Nextel Cup banners are slowly coming down, with Sprint Cup flags flying proudly in their place. Never have I seen the CoT on the track at Daytona, and never have I been so confused as to who is in what car.

We’ve got somebody other than Junior in the No. 8 (Martin), Mears replacing Kyle Busch in the No. 5, and Busch taking over the historic Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 – which is subsequently now a Toyota – from Yeley. Yeley is now in the No. 96 DLP HDTV car, while former truck champion Kvapil has brought the No. 28 back to Robert Yates Racing.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg, just session one. I can’t imagine when these cars hit the track for the first time in a full field – I’m going to feel like one of those new fans that NASCAR is aspiring to generate.

NASCAR has evolved tremendously over the past few years – whether or not it is positive change is something fans will always debate. However, all I know is I can not remember Silly Season ever being quite so funny. With a full month of testing to go, there’s a lot to sort out – and I hope you’ll take the ride right along with me.

Notes from Daytona – Session 1, Day 1

  • Johnson topped both the AM and PM charts. Mears closely followed his teammate in both sessions, posting the second and third fastest times.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on hand for Hendrick Motorsports – even though his car wasn’t out on the track. Despite being a part of the second test next week, Junior came to support new teammates Johnson, Gordon and Mears.
  • In both the AM and PM sessions, only one Ford or Dodge cracked the top 10 (Kvapil – eighth in the PM session). It’s obviously still WAY too early to say these manufacturers are off the pace, but it’s safe to say Chevrolet is still on the mark; the top two speeds in both sessions came from the Bowtie Brigade.
  • Rookie Jacques Villeneuve shined in his Daytona debut, placing fourth on the testing charts in his No. 27 Toyota. The Camrys of AJ Allmendinger and Kyle Busch also cracked the top 10 in both sessions.
  • Each driver made two-lap runs. Drafting practice is scheduled for tomorrow, where drivers will learn more about how the CoT will handle in traffic.

Top-Three Overall Speeds (in mph)

  1. Jimmie Johnson – 184.782 (AM)
  2. Casey Mears – 184.574 (AM)
  3. Kyle Busch – 184.064 (PM)

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