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Friday, January 4, 2008
A new season upon us as Daytona testing set to begin

By David Newton
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Christmas decorations are packed away and New Year's Eve hangovers are long gone. The college bowl season is about to end with LSU and Ohio State playing for a national title, and college basketball is in full swing.

This can mean only one thing.

Testing at Daytona International Speedway is ready to commence.

Yes, it's time for the drivers and crew members to head south for two weeks of testing around the famed track that will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Daytona 500 next month.

First things first.

Say "Sprint Cup Series."

Repeat it again: Sprint Cup Series.

Don't call it the Nextel Cup Series as you have the past four years. Or for you stubborn old-timers, the Winston Cup Series.

It's now the Sprint Cup Series, not to be confused with sprint car racing.

It's also time to accept that the Car of Tomorrow is the Car of Today, or the NASCAR car as the series officials call it for lack of a better name. The rear wing and front-end splitter that defines this boxy-looking machine will be used in all 36 races because NASCAR and team owners agreed last season to forego the three-year introductory plan.

It's one of many stories to follow as teams -- those that finished odd in the points last season will participate in the first session and those that finished even will come the following week -- begin 2008 in earnest Monday morning.

This test is such a big deal that two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who skipped the last three at Daytona, plans to make an appearance.

Here's a quick look at what you might see:

Dario Franchitti
Dario Franchitti will start his transition to NASCAR in earnest at Daytona.

The Car of Tomorrow
Like it or not -- and many still don't like it -- the COT is here to stay. This will be the first test for the car at Daytona, where handling is more of an issue than it was at Talladega, where the car was introduced into restrictor-plate racing last October. Engineers and crew chiefs have spent the offseason performing wind-tunnel tests to see how it will react, but you can't fully simulate a 30-car pack where drivers are stirring air in more directions than a Midwest tornado.

How fast will it go compared to the old car? How will the draft be affected? Will bump drafting -- or slam drafting as it has become known the past few years -- be a factor because of the way the front and rear bumpers match up so well? Will it still be an advantage to sling-shot from behind or be out front? Will it actually promote large packs or smaller ones as we saw at Talladega?

There hasn't been this much interested in testing at Daytona, where teams typically know what they have after a couple of laps, in years.

Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota
You read right. Stewart will be at testing. No subs such as Mike McLaughin a year ago. With JGR moving from Chevrolet to Toyota, the 2002 and 2005 champion felt it important enough to cut his offseason of milkshakes and dirt-track racing short. Or at least somebody in the organization felt it important enough that he cut it short.

Most of the focus will be on the engines. Because the new cars all are stamped out of the same press with the nose the only noticeable difference, horsepower will be key as Toyota moves into its second season.

Season One wasn't much to talk about. It began with Michael Waltrip losing his crew chief and team director after a gooey substance that has yet to be revealed was found in his engine prior to qualifying for the Daytona 500.

It ended with no wins and only one Toyota driver, Dave Blaney, finishing among the top 35 in owners' points

But optimism is high with the arrival of JGR, which has won three titles since 2000. The combination of Toyota Racing Development and JGR technology has officials confident they can find the extra horsepower that will put the foreign manufacturer on a level playing field with Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge.

And don't forget, this will be the debut of Kyle Busch in a JGR car.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
You'll have to wait until the second session to see how Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- NASCAR's most popular driver -- looks in his new Adidas uniform and behind the wheel of his new Hendrick Motorsports car. That gives you a little extra time to purchase the new No. 88 gear to replace the red No. 8 gear that has become synonymous with the son of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.

The media circus around Earnhardt Jr. will be bigger than ever as he moves into equipment that won half of the races last season with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Casey Mears and Busch. Fans already are predicting the driver who hasn't won in more than a year will win five or six times.

Over-hyped? Perhaps. But that's the staple of Earnhardt's career.

Early indications from the Atlanta test last season are that Earnhardt will be just fine. He and long-time crew chief Tony Eury Jr. made the transition seem effortless, putting a smile on team owner Rick Hendrick's face.

The new uniform? Now that's up for debate. Some drivers seem to like it. Others say it's downright ugly.

More on that in the preseason fashion report.

Talladega Racing
How will the Car of Tomorrow -- now just the car -- do at Daytona. We'll get a better idea beginning Monday.

Open-wheel invasion
Look at what Juan Pablo Montoya started last season when he made the switch from Formula One to NASCAR. So many open-wheel drivers are coming into the sport this year that you'll need a pronunciation guide to get through the starting grid.

Dario Franchitti will join Montoya at Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, which means the pre-race procession of wives just got a boost since Ashley Judd is part of the package.

Patrick Carpentier will drive for Gillett Evernham Motorsports. Sam Hornish Jr. will drive for Penske. Jacque Villeneuve will drive for Bill Davis Racing.

There will be more former Indianapolis 500 winners attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 than there will be at the Indy 500.

Montoya proved it can be done, winning a Busch and Cup race in his first season. He also proved it's not simple, finishing 20th in points despite what many consider a remarkable season.

Chevrolet and Hendrick
Chevrolets won an amazing 26 races last season, with HMS claiming 18. Jimmie Johnson led the charge with 10 wins en route to his second straight championship.

Hendrick obviously had an early advantage on the COT, with Johnson, Gordon and Busch combining to capture the first five aces in the new car. JGR, also with Chevrolets, cut the gap by midseason but that no longer is a factor with the move to Toyota.

Roush Fenway Racing made great strides after owner Jack Roush finally realized he had to step up his testing program to keep up, but the organization still remained a distant second to HMS.

Has the gap been closed during the offseason? Can anybody stop Chevrolet from winning yet another manufacturer's title and Johnson from becoming the first driver since Cale Yarborough in 1976-78 to win three straight championships?

Stay tuned. Testing is upon us.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.