- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Barely 50 days from the moment Tony Stewart was crowned as NASCAR's Nextel Cup champion, the series has sprung to life once again.
But instead of being in South Florida, where the year ended at Homestead, NASCAR is back in the familiar confines of Daytona Beach, a few hours north, as preparations for the Daytona 500 get under way.
Much will be made of the speeds clocked during the two test sessions, which conclude Jan. 16-18. But unless you're one of the teams outside the top 35, and thus have to fight your way into the field for the year's most prestigious race, the times recorded truly don't matter.
Thanks to the draft, cars will run together in a pack most of the race no matter their speeds while running qualifying laps. So in many ways, for the drivers locked in the field, qualifying accounts for bragging rights and little else.
Some drivers will know from the outset that they have a solid car to bring back next month. Others will get to that point during their three-day test. Some will head home knowing that their fabricators have to work on the body or that the engine department needs to find a way to get more horsepower out of an engine choked of its true potential by a restrictor plate.
Others will return to their shop knowing it likely will take a small miracle in the qualifying races to make the field. But no matter what, the drivers will realize there's little in their control at Daytona, be it in the race or during a test session.
Still, it's the start of a new season, and that aspect probably is much more meaningful to those drivers who will make up the biggest Raybestos Rookie of the Year class in recent memory. The likes of Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, J.J. Yeley, David Stremme, Reed Sorenson and Brent Sherman will be among those testing at Daytona, and they'll likely be the drivers who most need time to work with their crews.
Jimmy Elledge, Sorenson's crew chief at Chip Ganassi Racing, is anxious to see just how much he and Sorenson can learn about their Dodge while testing during Daytona's first session.
"We're looking for speed," Elledge says. "With the top 35 in points from last year locked in, we won't be as concerned about qualifying unless we feel like we have a car capable of getting the pole.
"You know if you have a shot at the pole after the first couple of runs, and if that's the case, we'll tweak on the qualifying setup and try to go for it when we return for Speedweeks. If we don't feel like the pole is attainable, then we'll focus our attention on figuring out how much downforce we can get into the car so it will handle well in the race and what the penalties are aerodynamically."
Elledge's approach will be followed up and down the garage during the first day of testing by teams in the Craftsman Truck Series and Busch Series as well as the Cup teams that will take to the track next week.
Sorenson's goal is simple, and it's one shared by many of his fellow rookies.
"The most important aspect of the test for me will be getting some practice running in the draft," Sorenson says. "I don't have a lot of superspeedway experience, so I'm looking forward to getting out there with a group of cars to get a feel for how the car handles in the draft and how to work myself around in the pack."
Jeff Vandermoss is Stremme's crew chief at Ganassi, a team that -- with Stremme and Sorenson -- will be fielding two rookies yet again after doing so with Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears in 2003. Vandermoss knows what he hopes to accomplish while in Daytona.
"The test at Daytona is used for a lot of different things." he said. "First and foremost, we learn all that we can to improve on the cars and the setups and get the chance to try different things and find out what works and what doesn't. It also gives us a chance as a new team to work together and learn how we are going to work as a team and spend some time getting to know how everyone does things. The guys have been working hard in the shop to get the cars ready for this test, and I am looking forward to seeing how it goes."
Just one day into testing, Bill Elliott had plenty to smile about. After skipping the Daytona 500 the past two years while running a limited schedule, Elliott is attempting to make the field this year in a Chevrolet fielded by MB2 Motorsports.
His No. 36 team didn't run enough races with Boris Said last year to earn a spot in the top 35, so Elliott will have to qualify on time. And although one day of practice doesn't guarantee anything, he still was pleased to end up on top of the charts in the day's second practice session.
"I'm stepping into an already good deal -- MB2 has a history of fast superspeedway cars," Elliott said. "We got by the first hurdle by having a fast car as soon as it was unloaded. If you're not fast off the trailer, it's then difficult to find that extra speed. We're in good shape after the first day of testing.
"This team is so connected. We've got a strong baseline, and that will allow us to experiment more the next two days. I just mashed the pedal and took off for a very fast ride. It's nice to be on top of the speed charts, but I'd rather be at the top in another month."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com
Plenty is going on as teams test their new cars and setups at Daytona. But the real pressure is on the rookies, writes Mark Ashenfelter.