ARCA On Track At Daytona
December 18, 2004 | 3:05 A.M. EST
The ARCA RE/MAX Series kicked off a two-day test session on Saturday at "The World Center of Racing" in preparation for the season-opening Advance Discount Auto Parts 200 on Saturday, Feb. 12, LIVE on SPEED Channel at 4 p.m.
The Speedway has been undergoing a multi-million, multi-faceted infield renovation, which included new NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series and Busch Series garages, new Gatorade Victory Lane and Daytona 500 Club, a massive Turn 1 tunnel, a uniquely designed FanZone and waterfront specialty vehicle parking.
The more than 30 ARCA RE/MAX Series teams are based out of the Busch Series garages on the west end of the Speedway for the two-day test session. Many of the drivers were impressed by all the infield renovations, which will be completed in time for the Grand Opening on Feb. 5-6 at the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
"It's impressive what they've done," said veteran driver Mark Gibson, a Daytona Beach, Fla., native and the all-time leader in Advance Discount Auto Parts 200 starts with 19. "The France family, they're stepping up their deal. It's going to make everybody stand up and look. It looks pretty fan friendly. The track needed a renovation. It's been like this ever since I've been coming here in 1982. I'm getting to the end of my career and now their doing all these renovations. I got to win Daytona before I retire."
Drivers also gave thumbs-up to Turn 1, where the track was patched up after the new massive tunnel was built.
"It's fine," said Clint Bowyer, who races Chevrolets for Richard Childress Racing in the NASCAR Busch Series and will compete in February's Advance Discount Auto Parts 200 for RCR. "It has quite bit more grip right there for a second but it's fine. It's such a short patch. It's not going to cause any problems."
"I really couldn't tell (a difference)," said two-time Advance Discount Auto Parts 200 winner Bobby Gerhart. "They did a nice job. It's going to be beautiful. The (infield) layout is one that is going to be more fan-friendly and that's what we're here for."
The fastest on the first day of testing was Johnny Leonard, who turned a speed of 183.076 mph in a Pontiac. NOTE: However; the fastest speeds posted from Saturday afternoon, including Leonard's, represented speeds in the draft and not single car speeds.
Rounding out the top five were Walt Brannen (183.046), Mike Harmon (182.589), Dan Shaver (182.423) and Christi Passmore (182.386).
Testing continues on Sunday and is free and open to the public with access to the Oldfield Grandstand through the lobby of DAYTONA USA.
Gerhart shooting for No. 3 win: Gerhart will be shooting for his third Advance Discount Auto Parts 200 victory in February. The Pennsylvania driver who also handles the car owner duties was victorious in 1999 and 2002 and is always considered one of the pre-race favorites for the 80-lap ARCA RE/MAX Series season-opening event that precedes the Budweiser Shootout.
"The engine that's in this car was actually started in March of last year," Gerhart said during the lunch break. "We spend a lot of time getting ready for this. We're never done. I'm never done. Seven days a week as long as I can stand some days just to get everything we can. We try not to leave too many rocks unturned.
“I've always felt (Daytona) was our biggest shining moment as a series. For me growing up as a kid and watching all the races on television - if you're going to race and race well, this is the place to do it."
Venturini not about to give up: In his five Advance Discount Auto Parts 200 starts, Billy Venturini has been in the hunt for a trip to Gatorade Victory Lane a couple of times. The driver of the No. 25 Pontiac has finished third in the Advance Discount Auto Parts 200 the past two years and has qualified on the outside pole twice.
"We've run so well here the last couple years," Venturini said. "We're really expecting to come here and win. That's our goal. Obviously that's everyone's goal but it's very attainable. I've been right there with a chance to win the last two years and I think I've got a really good hot rod this year. It's a brand new car that we just built in the off-season and we're real excited about it."
The 28-year-old Venturini, who was watched his father Bill compete in the ARCA RE/MAX Series at DIS, was amazed by the new infield renovations.
"This place is awesome," Venturni said. "I'm used to seeing the tin roofs (on the Busch garages) here when we come here. The infield is beautiful. This is my favorite race track to come to in the whole world. It's just the best race track there is and there's no other place better than Daytona."
First on track: Ken Weaver, a native of Dallas Texas and driver of the No. 20 Chevrolet, had the distinction of being the first to drive over the new Turn 1 tunnel.
Tickets for the ARCA RE/MAX Series Advance Auto Parts 200 and NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Budweiser Shootout at Daytona are available online or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.