Sunday, January 12, 2003

No consensus yet on new body styles

NASCAR notebook

Enquirer news services

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - NASCAR concluded its first of two three-day testing sessions Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, and the consensus was more work needs to be done before judgment can be passed on the new Winston Cup body styles.

But one thing is for sure: The competition is tight.

"I was amazed," said Roush Racing Ford driver Jeff Burton. "We went out one time and I think we picked up three-hundredths of a second and went from 13th to 11th in speed. It's just so close right now."

Normally, an increase of hundredths of a second would not result in a move up the speed charts.

Chevrolet and Pontiac have new body styles this season, while Ford and Dodge have new tail and nose pieces, respectively.

"At this time of year in these tests, people hold a little bit back," said Terry Laise, the lead chassis and aerodynamics engineer for GM Racing. "We don't know exactly where they are. We think we're pretty good. The Dodges may be better than what they're showing right now.

"I'm a little perplexed by the lack of speed by the Fords, with the cars so similar. I don't know why they'd be off."

Preseason Winston Cup testing concludes at Daytona Tuesday through Thursday, when teams that finished in even numbers in the points standings are scheduled to shake down their cars.

STEWART PASSES ON IROC: In the past, reigning Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart rarely passed up any chance to race, whether in an Indy car, Late Model dirt or Winston Cup. But this year, he has elected not to participate in the International Race of Champions, a four-race series that pits drivers from various forms of racing in identically prepared cars.

"I've never been a Winston Cup champion before, and I want to do it right - for my team, for my fellow competitors and for my fans," Stewart said. "When you win one championship, it makes you want to win a second that much more.

"That's our goal for 2003, and my decision to not race in IROC this year should be a pretty good indication of how much I want to repeat as Winston Cup champion."

Sophomore Winston Cup driver Jimmie Johnson will take Stewart's place.

"I'm confident that we will run well and have a lot of fun while doing it," Johnson said.

The IROC series begins at Daytona International Speedway next month. It also will run at Talladega, Chicago and Indianapolis.

LABONTE SWITCH: The switch from Pontiac to Chevrolet seems to be paying off for Bobby Labonte. His No. 18 Monte Carlo was the fastest on the final day of the opening test session at Daytona, with a best lap of 183.539 mph.

Labonte gave his new crew chief, Michael "Fatback" McSwain, much of the credit.

"Fatback and the guys did a great job working on the car," Labonte said. "Obviously, we feel good coming out of Daytona with the fastest lap."

HAMILTON TO TRUCKS: Bobby Hamilton, who has four wins in the past 11 years on the Winston Cup circuit, is switching to the Craftsman Truck Series this season.

Hamilton will bring his former Winston Cup sponsor, Square D, to the No. 4 Dodge, which is part of the three-truck team Hamilton owns.

Since the team was formed in 1998, drivers for Bobby Hamilton Racing have won nine races and 15 pole positions. Hamilton himself has two of those wins and three poles in just 24 starts.

The car Hamilton drove in Winston Cup last season, the No. 55 owned by Andy Petree, is without a full-time sponsor. But Christian Fittipaldi will attempt to race it in the Daytona 500 with backing from Monaco Coach Corp.

TEAM MOVES: Robin Pemberton, who led the resurgence at Petty Enterprises last season as team manger, has left the organization. The team released a statement saying Pemberton's departure was part of the organization's restructuring.

"We really appreciate the knowledge and experience Robin brought to our race teams, and wish him nothing but the best as he continues his career," said Kyle Petty, CEO of Petty Enterprises.

Before moving to Petty Enterprises in December 2001, Pemberton was Rusty Wallace's crew chief. His future plans are unknown.

Although he's been out of the team picture since the end of the 2002 season, Casey Atwood, 22, was released from Evernham Motorsports last week. Atwood was once considered a future star, but his work ethic has been questioned the past two seasons.

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