Early Start To Season

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Several drivers from the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series will kick off their 2004 Speedweeks by participating in the 42nd Anniversary of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, Jan. 31 - Feb.1.

Fan favorites Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will team up with Andy Wallace in the Howard-Boss Motorsports No. 2 Chevrolet Crawford for this year's 24-hour classic, while Jimmie Johnson joins Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Butch Leitzinger and David Brule in the team's No. 4 Chevrolet.

"(I like to do the Rolex 24) because I get to race instead of sitting around all winter like everybody else does. There are a bunch of us doing it. Dale Jr. is my teammate this year. Jimmie Johnson is driving a team car to our car. These guys who are doing it are the ones who like going out and racing - even though it's not a NEXTEL Cup event," said Stewart.

"I had the opportunity to run the 24 hour two years ago and had an absolute blast. It was a lot of fun. We also ran the Paul Revere race here last year with Elliott Forbes-Robinson. It's nice to do something different every once in a while. In all honesty, I really feel like it will help me be a better road racer when it comes time to go to the road course races with Cup this year. We learn so much from the guys who are professional road racers. You pick up little things here and there," continued Stewart.

All three of the NEXTEL Cup drivers on the Howard-Boss Motorsports team were at pre-season testing at Daytona International Speedway earlier this month, where they took their first laps in the pair of new Daytona Prototypes.

"(It's) a weird feeling getting ready to step into somebody else's car. I've always pretty much drove my own stuff, and when I didn't, I'd drive Richard's (Childress) car, and I didn't really think about what he'd think if I tore it up, because he knows me well enough. But the Crawfords don't, and I didn't know what they'd think if I tore their car up. So, I was kind of nervous when I was driving it," admitted Earnhardt, following his weekend of testing.

"I'm not quite as concerned now. I drove the car the second day, and it was 100 percent better than it was the first day. The first day it was really all over the place. And I thought, 'man, if I've got to drive that thing with three drivers in a 24-hour race, I was definitely going to do some damage to it.' But we got it driving a lot better," added Earnhardt, who will make his second Rolex 24 start after teaming with his father in the 2001 race.

"I'm really excited to drive the Daytona Prototype car," said Johnson, who will contest his first Rolex 24. "I've never been in anything that has driven like that. It's quite an experience. Crawford has put a great car on the track so we've got a legitimate shot at winning the race, which would be another good thing to have on the mantle. (I'm) feeling good about it, but that first segment that I'm in the car, I'm just going to be watching myself and make sure that I don't mess anything up."

Kyle Petty is also slated to compete in his fifth Rolex 24 At Daytona, racing the No. 45 Porsche Fabcar of Gunnar Racing.

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