Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off
to test NASCAR teams go

Sessions get rolling at Daytona next week

By JIM UTTER ThatsRacin.com Writer

About six weeks after the Winston Cup season finale in Homestead, Fla., Nextel Cup teams head to Daytona Beach, Fla., next week for the first of five mandatory NASCAR preseason test sessions at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.

Teams that finished in odd numbers positions in car owner points in 2003 will begin a three-day test Tuesday. The rest of Cup teams will test Jan. 13-15.

All NASCAR Truck series teams - including the first entries from Toyota - will test Jan. 10-12. NASCAR Busch series teams are to test Jan. 17-18 (odd numbers) and 20-21 (even numbers).

The first Cup race of 2004 is the Feb. 7 non-points Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, which will feature 2003 pole winners and past winners of the event. The Truck season opener will be Feb. 13; the Busch opener Feb. 14; and the Daytona 500 is Feb. 15.

Even though next week's is the considered the first "official" test of the new season, many teams have been testing since the Nov. 16 season finale.

Several teams have tested at tracks such as Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky., and Nashville (Tenn.) Superspeedway, which don't host Cup races but are similar enough to series tracks to gain valuable data.

Last month, Evernham Motorsports sent its two full-time drivers - Jeremy Mayfield and rookie Kasey Kahne - and veteran Bill Elliott to Nashville to begin the process of helping Kahne adjust to the series.

"My focus right now is to get comfortable in the car and with the team," said Kahne, who will drive Evernham's No. 9 Dodges. Crew chief "Tommy Baldwin is great, and so are the guys on the No. 9 team.

"I'm just going to be listening and learning. I've talked a lot with Jeremy, too. I think it's going to be a great benefit working with him."

Elliott will drive a partial schedule, spending most of his time as a mentor for Kahne, who will compete in both the Cup and Busch series.

"I chose this path, and I think it's going to be good for me," Elliott said. "It'll be a transition, but I think I'll be able to help these guys a lot."

Johnny Sauter, who will step into Richard Childress Racing's No. 30 Chevrolets, is counting on the experience of his veteran crew chief, Kevin Hamlin to guide him through his rookie season.

"He has the experience at Daytona that will be vital to for the team to get the most out of our preseason test," Sauter said of Hamlin. "He knows how to get a car prepared for Daytona and that's far more important than the driver at a superspeedway."

Hamlin said there is not a lot the driver can do to gain or lose speed at the restrictor-plate track.

"The big emphasis during the preseason testing in Daytona is trying to get the speed out of the car, so we mainly do the two-lap runs to find the speed," Hamlin said.

"We would like to get the opportunity for Johnny to get in some drafting practice. That would be more important for his development in the Cup car."

What about the veteran teams, the ones whose drivers have turned hundreds, if not thousands, of laps at Daytona? What do they gain from the test?

"We need to learn as much as possible about what works and what doesn't work and what the team needs to focus on for the season ahead," said Andy Graves, team manager for Chip Ganassi Racing, which fields Dodges for Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears.

"We like to work on team chemistry, if there are new guys on the road crew the preseason is the time for us to work on team cohesiveness. It is important that everyone is able to work together and it's better to find that out now."