Winston Cup drivers have high hopes for 2003 campaignPosted: Thursday February 06, 2003 9:48 PM
Updated: Thursday February 06, 2003 9:53 PM
By Denise N. Maloof, SI.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- You learn a lot when you're a rookie, and some of it's even useful.
That was Jamie McMurray's revelation during Thursday's media day at Daytona International Speedway, the first official function for SpeedWeeks 2003. He entered the interview area wearing his new silver, black, white and gold firesuit for photo sessions, and an adjacent hubbub stopped him in his soft-soled, flame-resistant tracks.
"Oh my God," said McMurray, feeling suddenly, gratefully anonymous.
He peeped around torsos, over shoulders. What had snagged his attention wasn't the volume of cameras, notepads and bodies lying in wait. It was the layers of them sandwiched around an invisible driver.
Still unnoticed, McMurray explained he had to see who it was (Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
"Now I know," McMurray said. "Poor guy."
Yet one more reminder that winter's out-of-sight, out-of-mind time is gone. And another one lurks: The Budweiser Shootout, the annual showcase, non-points event for the past season's pole winners, happens under the lights Saturday night. The season-opening Daytona 500 is a week away.
On Thursday, most drivers were figuratively beating their chests and saying, 'Bring it on.'
"Same group," Sterling Marlin said of his Chip Ganassi Racing team, which dominated last year's points standings. "Ready to go. Ready to roll."
"Every driver you talk to today is going to be very optimistic about their season," said Elliott Sadler, who's beginning his first tour with Robert Yates Racing. "Why? Because we're all tied right now. We're all tied zero to zero. I'm leading the points, and I'm last in the points all at the same time."
"You have built your program based on your weaknesses and based on your strengths the year before," Jeff Burton said. "So you can't come to the Daytona 500 without thinking about last year, because it has impacted what you've placed in process for the upcoming year."
Or, as John Andretti said, "Everybody loves their crew chief."
Translation: Nobody's thinking about wrecks, poor qualifying or weekly pit screw-ups.
"After that they all want divorces, and it gets really ugly as the season goes on," said Andretti, who's been very patient as part of Petty Enterprises' long-term rebuilding effort. "Because right now, everybody believes in the all the people they have. But do they really believe in them, or are they just trying to sell themselves on false hope?"
For teams who moved heaven and earth as part of late-season and offseason fixes, the first few practices -- either for the Shootout or the 500 -- will be crucial. Bobby Labonte, who fell from the 2000 Winston Cup championship to 16th last season, knows more than cosmetics are at stake.
"Obviously we're grinning from ear to ear right now because we feel like we've got a good race car and everything's going to go good," said Labonte, who switched from Pontiac to Chevrolet for 2003, as did Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart. "Now, that first lap on the race track, if it's slow, then faces are going to go, 'Oh boy, we're in trouble.'"
Labonte also knows that media-day proclamations can bite one's butt.
"I know last year at this time I was like, 'Uh, I think we'll be all right, but I'm not 100 percent sure yet, either,'" Labonte said. "At the beginning of the year, I probably said things that at the end of the year, everybody was like, 'Whoa, he didn't know what he was talking about.' I thought we were going to be really good. You say that all the time and hope you're good."
Todd Bodine, who has recovered from offseason back surgery, is just glad to be employed. He and Joe Nemechek worked for owners Carl Haas and Travis Carter last February, but only a few weeks before they arrived in Daytona, then-primary sponsor Kmart announced it was leaving the business because of bankruptcy proceedings.
This season, Bodine is driving for BelCar Racing, a partnership between Sam Belnavis and Carter. He's also continuing his Busch Series affiliation with Herzog Motorsports. Nemechek's OK, too. He's driving the No. 25 for Hendrick Motorsports.
"Huge difference," Bodine said. "I came here last year knowing after Las Vegas I didn't have a job. You try not to let it bother you, but it does. And now we come down here, I got two jobs again, running Busch full-time and running Winston Cup. What a difference a year makes."
Say what you will about the pressure on Stewart to repeat, or Earnhardt Jr. to surface as a championship threat. Rusty Wallace's primary sponsor, Miller Brewing, has guaranteed free six-packs for all ticket holders of legal drinking age if Wallace can win the 500. Wallace has never won The Great American Race, but that doesn't mean he and others at Penske Racing aren't trying.
A Wednesday telephone conversation with shop manager Gary Brooks hammered the issue home. Wallace, who's battling a career-long 62-race winless streak, would like to end it in style.
"He said, 'Rusty, we're better prepared now than we've ever been for the Daytona 500,'" Wallace said of the conversation with Brooks. "'Let's just keep our fingers crossed and hope this works out.'"
As for advice, Ryan Newman, who beat fellow phenom Jimmie Johnson for last year's rookie of the year title, can offer a few pearls to McMurray.
"They're both pretty much the same to me," Newman said of his freshman-versus-sophomore outlook. "I don't see it as much different. I think the biggest difference is everybody's perspective of me as far as what they think I'm capable of. My fan base [has grown], and that's pretty much it.
"Last year we came here to be rookie of the year, and this year we're coming here to be Winston Cup champions. Both are pretty hard tasks to achieve."
Is dealing with all the media attention just as hard?
"No," Newman said. "But the chair's pretty comfortable this year."