New Season New Questions

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When the month of February rolls around and you mention the Daytona International Speedway, first thing that pops in mind if you are a race fan is – “SpeedWeeks” – the start to a new racing season is fast approaching. It seems like the checkered flag waved over the final event in 2002 just weeks ago, which to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series teams means only one thing. It appears the off-season is getting shorter and shorter.

SpeedWeeks in Daytona Beach, Fla., has become a tradition to the race fan, a way to kick off a new racing season. And it all begins with the Budweiser Shootout at the Daytona International Speedway. For the first time in the history of the event, the race will be under the lights in primetime Saturday (Feb. 8) at 8 p.m. and will be televised by FOX Sports. The list of drivers eligible for the Shootout consists of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman, Ward Burton, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Craven, Ricky Rudd, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Geoffrey Bodine, Ken Schrader, Todd Bodine and Terry Labonte. Stewart, the 2002 Winston Cup champion, will be gunning for a record third-straight Budweiser Shootout victory.

With several teams switching car makes and testing dates scheduled in mid-January, the pressures of preparing for the upcoming racing season meant many man-hours were spent working in the race shops. The Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge and Pontiac teams were out in full-force testing at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway for the 45th running of the Daytona 500, “The Great American Race” which kicks off the 2003 season on Feb. 16. And with the “new year” also comes “new hopes” for all the teams in the garage area.

With the start to the new season a big question always is, will the defending NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion be able to defend his title? Tony Stewart, driver of the No.20 Home Depot Chevrolet, should be a contender once again in 2003 with crew chief Greg Zipadelli calling the shots. More importantly, “Zippy” will try to keep the sometime hot-headed Stewart’s temper in check – a job he did well last year. Should Stewart repeat as champion, he will be the first to do so since Jeff Gordon won back-to-back titles in 1997 and ’98.

The most visible change over the winter at Joe Gibbs Racing was the switch of team cars for Stewart and Bobby Labonte from the Pontiac Grand Prix to the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Another change for Labonte, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries car, will be new crew chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain sitting on the pitbox on Sundays. Jimmy Makar, Labonte’s former crew chief, was promoted to team manager overseeing the operations of both Stewart and Labonte.

Last season was one of ups and downs for Jack Roush and Roush Racing. He miraculously survived an airplane crash in Alabama and almost finally earned a seat at the head table in New York at the awards banquet in December. Can things get better in 2003 for Roush? Well, that just might be a tough task to duplicate.

Driving Roush-owned cars Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford) finished second in points with one victory. Kurt Busch (No. 97 Sharpie Ford) finished third in the points and won four races. Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Dewalt Tools Ford) finished eighth and won a series-leading five races and, although Jeff Burton (No. 99 CITGO Ford) didn't win a race, he did finish 12th in the points. Busch won three of the final five races of 2002 and has positioned himself as a leading contender to reign supreme this year.

Joining the aforementioned drivers as a Roush teammate this season will be defending NASCAR Busch Grand National champion Greg Biffle, who will be behind the wheel of the Grainger-sponsored Ford Taurus. Is winning a Cup title within Biffle’s reach? Probably not in his rookie season. However, don’t bet against Biffle one day becoming a Winston Cup champion. He is the first driver to win Craftsman Truck and BGN championships, and would like to be the first to complete the sweep of NASCAR’s top series.

Without a doubt Jimmie Johnson was not only the surprise at Hendrick Motorsports last season, but quite possibly in Winston Cup. Johnson led the points following the October event at Talladega, but down the stretch faded to an eventual fifth-place finish in the standings. He will be under the spotlight to duplicate his strong 2002 season this year.

Going through the rigors of a Winston Cup season is tough enough, but for Jeff Gordon (Winston Cup champion in 1995, ’97, ’98 and 2001) he had more on his mind last year. He and wife Brooke separated in early spring and announced they would file for divorce. Still, Gordon captured three victories and won $4,899,324. Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, has two (’97 and ’99) Daytona 500 wins notched in his belt, and don’t bet against him parking in Victory Lane on Sunday, Feb. 16 celebrating win number three.

Mention the major players (teams) in NASCAR Winston Cup racing and you think of Joe Gibbs Racing, Robert Yates Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motrosports, Roush Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. No DEI driver finished in the top 10 in points last season, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. did manage an 11th place finish with two victories, while Michael Waltrip captured one win en route to finishing 14th in points. Returning to the seat of the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet after missing much of the 2001 season due to head injuries suffered in an accident at Darlington Raceway, Steve Park finished 33rd in points.

Earnhardt Jr. will once again have father and son, Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr., in his pits this season. Also, an entirely new pit crew will service the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. Waltrip’s team, arguably one of the top teams the last half of the season, returns intact with Slugger Labbe as crew chief of the No. 15 NAPA Monte Carlo.

Last year Ryan Newman won the rookie of the year award, captured one regular season win (also a non-points victory in the all-star event The Winston) and finished sixth in the Winston Cup point standings. Rusty Wallace finished seventh in the points, and though he didn’t win a race, he did finish second four times. So, you’d think with their accomplishments they would be classified among the favorites to possibly win the 2003 championship.

Penske Racing is making the switch from Ford to Dodge and, the move could pay off big to Newman and Wallace. One of the reasons for the switch was to get more engineering and technical support. If Penske Racing gets it, don’t be surprised to see either driver win the title. Along with sponsors Alltel (Newman) and Miller Lite (Wallace), respective crew chiefs Matt Borland and Bill Wilburn return to hopefully guide their driver to the top of the standings.

For the first time since 1992, Richard Childress Racing failed to place a car in the top 10 of the Winston Cup standings at season’s end. Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet, recorded the only victory (Chicago Speedway) for RCR last season. While Harvick scored the only team victory, first-year drivers for Childress, Jeff Green (No. 30 AOL Chevrolet) and Robby Gordon (No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet), finished 17th and 20th respectively in the point standings, to Harvick’s 21st-place.

Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler will sit behind the wheel this season in Robert Yates Racing prepared Fords. Jarrett in the No. 88 UPS sponsored entry and Sadler in the No. 38 M&M’s Taurus.

Quite a few changes have taken place during the off-season, with Todd Parrott moving from Jarrett’s crew chief to director of competition for RYR. Todd’s younger brother, Brad, becomes crew chief for Jarrett. Doug Yates, Robert’s son, will be the general manager of Sadler’s team. Raymond Fox III will serve as Sadler’s crew chief. Another noticeable change for Sadler’s team is the No. 28 has been changed to the No. 38, with M&M’s replacing Texaco Havoline as the sponsor. Both the No. 28 and the sponsor Texaco were longtime associated with RYR, dating back to when the late Davey Allison was chauffeuring Yates owned cars.

For Jarrett, the 1999 Winston Cup champion and three-time (1993, ’96 and 2000) Daytona 500 winner, he looks to improve on his two wins last season and $3,839,388 in earnings. And for Sadler, in his first year driving for Yates after previously racing for the Wood Brothers, he will be looking to capture his second career victory.

A lot of attention will be focused on Chip Ganassi Racing’s three-team lineup. Sterling Marlin will return following a premature early-ending to his 2002 season when he suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck following a crash at Kansas Speedway. Marlin, driver of the No. 40 Coors Dodge, led the Winston Cup standings for 25 of 29 weeks and had recorded two victories before his injury. With Marlin sidelined, Jamie McMurray stepped in to wheel Marlin’s entry the remainder of the season and, in only his second race visited victory lane at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

At Ganassi Racing it will be a battle within a battle as McMurray, who will drive the No. 42 Texaco Havoline Dodge, will have fellow teammate Casey Mears (No. 41 Target Dodge) to contend with for 2003 Winston Cup rookie of the year honors. Both will have veteran crew chiefs to guide them through their rookie campaigns; Donnie Wingo (McMurray) and Jimmy Elledge (Mears).

Returning as teammates this season at Evernham Motorsports are Bill Elliott and Jeremy Mayfield. When Ray Evernham left Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports to head up Dodge’s return to racing, many expected his successes to follow him. They have somewhat, but not up to his expectations. Fielding two cars each of the past two seasons, Evernham Motorsports has three victories (all by Elliott) and seven poles, while Elliott has finished in the top-15 in points. However, the No. 19, which was driven last year by Mayfield and by Casey Atwood in 2001, has finished 26th in points each season.

At Bill Davis Racing, Ward Burton will return to the seat of the No. 22 Caterpillar Dodge. Burton captured two wins last season, most notably the season-opening Daytona 500. But other than the two trips to victory lane, the season might be summed up best as “so-so” due to Burton’s 25th-place finish in points. Frank Stoddard replaced Tommy Baldwin as crew chief with seven races remaining last season and the combination produced one top-five and two top-10s down the stretch. Kenny Wallace will drive the No. 23 Stacker2 Dodge this season for Davis after replacing Hut Stricklin for the final 11 races last year.

Other drivers who you just might want to watch in 2003 include Johnny Benson, driver of the No. 10 Valvoline Pontiac, Terry Labonte, a former two-time Winston Cup champion, Joe Nemechek, Ricky Rudd, who will sit behind the wheel of the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, and Mike Skinner, who returns for his second season in the No. 4 Morgan-McClure Motorsports Pontiac. Plus Ricky Craven, driving Cal Wells’ PPI No. 32 Pontiac, John Andretti and Kyle Petty out of the Petty Enterprises stables, Dave Blaney, Ken Schrader, Jimmy Spencer, Jerry Nadeau, who will drive the No. 01 U.S. Army sponsored entry for MB2 Motorsports, and Todd Bodine, who will drive for co-owners Travis Carter and Sam Belnavis.

The drivers competing for the 2003 Winston Cup rookie of the year award begins with Roush Racing’s Greg Biffle, and Ganassi Racing’s Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears. Plus Jack Sprague, the three-time NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, who will wheel the CNC Racing No. 0 NetZero Pontiac; Larry Foyt, who takes over the seat in his dad A.J.’s No. 14 Harrah’s Dodge; and Tony Raines, a former Busch Grand National rookie of the year who will drive for BACE Motorsports, all will battle for the honor.

The Winston Cup point fund will be $17 million in 2003, an increase of $3 million over 2002. The champion will receive a minimum of $4.25 million from Winston (R.J. Reynolds) and NASCAR, a $500,000 increase over last year. Drivers finishing second through fourth will each receive more than $1 million at the annual awards ceremony in New York in December.

Who will be crowned the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion? Who knows, but my Top 10 picks at season’s end are as follows: 1. Tony Stewart, 2. Jeff Gordon, 3. Ryan Newman, 4. Kurt Busch, 5. Matt Kenseth, 6. Dale Jarrett, 7. Mark Martin, 8. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 9. Jeff Burton, 10. Rusty Wallace.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2003, Daytona 500

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