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Monday, January 7, 2008
First session of preseason testing opens at Daytona

Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tanned and relaxed as the sun set over the Caribbean on New Year's Day, crew chief Chad Knaus surveyed his surroundings and uttered the unthinkable: "I can't wait to get back to work."

Knaus didn't have to wait long.

The first session of preseason testing opened Monday at Daytona International Speedway, and two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson fell back into familiar form -- the Knaus-led team was the fastest of the 25 cars on the track during the morning session.

Across the garage, drivers and crews were eager to get back on the track. Alan Gustafson had Casey Mears lined up almost 10 minutes before the track opened to ensure they were the first team out there, and Mark Martin was lingering around his race car in his firesuit a full hour before most of the drivers even rolled out of bed.

And then there was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who isn't even participating in this testing session. His next chance to drive his new Hendrick Motorsports car isn't until next week, but he wasn't content sitting at home while new teammates Johnson, Mears and Jeff Gordon all got practice time this week.

He decided late Sunday evening to fly to Daytona for the opening session and spent time with his new teammates discussing their cars during the lunch break.

"I don't have any teammates at my test next week, and I wanted to make sure if there were some hurdles, I would know about them," he said. "I am just ready for the season to start. You learn the most the first day of testing, and I just wanted to come down and see what was going on."

His presence startled most of the drivers. Because testing can be so tedious, few want to participate in the three-day sessions.

"Most drivers, if they are not here testing, they don't want to be here," Gordon said. "So I was surprised. It says a lot. And it's smart on his part. I'm really proud of him for doing that."

NASCAR has just more than five weeks between the season-ending awards ceremony and the start of testing. It hardly gave Johnson time to find a place to store his second Sprint Cup trophy, but after some rest and relaxation with Knaus and teammate Mears he was eager to get started in pursuit of a third title.

"Last year we had a great time, and I only anticipate this year being better," he said. "We feel, looking back on last season, we made some mistakes and we can still be stronger. Hopefully this year we will be stronger and better."

Those goals kept Knaus busy during the offseason, but everyone knew he would be. After all, he was mocked endlessly when, in the moments after wrapping up the title in November, he said he couldn't wait for the season-opening Daytona 500.

But he truly meant it, and spent the offseason tweaking his championship crew by replacing two tire changers on a team that won "Pit Crew of the Year" last season.

"You always have to be building toward the future and I thought the guys we had last year, although they did a really good job, they were getting a little bit older," Knaus said. "We felt like this was going to be a good transition year for us, we made a change with our jackman last year, and we felt like we wanted to improve ourselves just a little bit."

Knaus continued his preseason tradition of taking his team to a local diner at 5:45 a.m. before the track opened, and the crew couldn't wait to get inside the gates.

Same goes for Martin, who has a new crew on the Dale Earnhardt Inc. ride he's sharing this season with Aric Almirola. Although he lives just minutes from the track, he was there when the gates opened.

"I was out here at 7 o'clock when the gates opened because I only knew like two people on my team," Martin said. "They really have a great attitude and so do I. The right attitude, that's really paramount to me."

Testing also marked the return of Richie Gilmore, who had been sidelined since a mild stroke in October. Cleared to travel just last week, he moved into his new role as head of the engine program shared by DEI and Richard Childress Racing.

Gilmore, formerly DEI's vice president of competition, took the new role this year and hopes to heed doctors' orders to minimize stress.

"I feel good; I just can't overdo it," he said. "But I've got a lot of people keeping a close eye on me and reminding me when to call it a day."