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Hey! Isn't it about time these NASCAR drivers finally got some laps in at Daytona...instead of just talking about it?

By Mike Mulhern


   It was another meet-the-press day for NASCAR drivers here Thursday, during the sport's annual Daytona 500 media day, NASCAR CEO Brian France made an unexpected 20-minute appearance….and former team owner Bobby Ginn made a surprise appearance too, though in name-only so far, on the side of a Richard Childress Cup hauler.
   The Ginn-Childress surprise is apparently yet another maneuver by team owners to take advantage of loopholes in NASCAR's top-35 rule, which guarantees the top 35 teams in last year's standings starting spots in this year first five events. Owners can 'buy' one of those top-35 exemptions by ostensibly merging or becoming partners with an owner already in the top-35, such as Ginn is, as still-owner of the 01 team – although Ginn himself bowed out of the sport nearly a year and a half ago with sponsorship problems.
   The Childress-Ginn move would appear to put Clint Bowyer in the top-35; Bowyer is driving for Childress' new fourth Cup team, and would otherwise have to qualify for the first five races.
   France himself didn't appear very concerned with all the wheeling and dealing. He's more concerned about having full fields for his races this season and full grandstands.
   Daytona International Speedway opened Thursday for ARCA practice, and Friday Cup drivers finally get on the 2.5-mile track to warm up for Saturday night's Bud Shootout, which will be a 28-car field featuring the top seven teams from each car maker – Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota. That entry rule for the 75-lap race has been roundly criticized.
   One oddity: Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman won't be in the Shootout field, but 18-year-old rookie Joey Logano will be. It will be Logano's first Cup race at a restrictor plate track. And Logano should have some very hot iron – he's driving for Greg Zipadelli and Joe Gibbs, and that team, with Tony Stewart at the wheel, nearly won last year's 500.
   And teammate Denny Hamlin was the big surprise in the Shootout when he was a rookie.
   Jimmie Johnson, who is going for a fourth straight championship, is curious to see how Logano does.
   "You know it's tough," Johnson says of being a rookie at Daytona. "If we were at Talladega, I would say it's much easier for guys to get ready for the draft.
   "But here handling is so important.
   "We all know that car is going to be pretty damn good.  I think he's going to have more of an opportunity to create his own destiny than he would if he was at Talladega. 
    "He's shown his smarts, and the Gibbs wouldn't be putting their faith in him if he couldn't do it."

"It’s kind of tough because we didn’t get Daytona testing," Logano said. "The first time on track is going to be Shootout practice. Go out there and start drafting right off the bat. That’s going to be a big deal, but once I get through that, I think we’re going to be okay."

   And Johnson says he's still shaking his head over Hamlin's debut: "I remember him shocking all of us.  Man, he just won. 
   "So it could go that direction.
   "NASCAR has approved him, so I don't feel there are any issues there. 
    "All the stuff that leads up to the 500 will be good practice for him. 
    "I showed up pretty green as a rookie here.  I only had, I guess, four plate races before I started. And I think he's had two or three, with all the other stuff he’s done. I think he'll be just fine."
   Johnson himself may have a chip on his shoulder this SpeedWeeks – after a media poll picked Carl Edwards to win this year's Sprint Cup title. 
    "It's not annoying me," Johnson insists. "Everybody is entitled to his opinion. And if you look at the odds, they are certainly stacked up against us winning."
   That would four in a row. "It's never been done before," Johnson says of the road ahead of him and Chad Knaus.
   "But in my heart I truthfully think we've got a great shot at a fourth championship. 
    "In my opinion we should be ranked number one, especially if you look at our stats and what we've done over the last three years."
    Saturday night, though, Johnson says he'd pick Dale Earnhardt Jr. "He's able to do things out there that a lot of guys can't," Johnson said. "He's really amazing with what he does. 
   "Tony Stewart is going to be a big threat; he's got great equipment. And Michael Waltrip always shows up at these plate races and does a great job."
   Already SpeedWeeks has had a curious twist – with NASCAR's new drug testing policy: "It was kind of odd to go into a room with another man and have him watch you pee in a cup," Johnson said with a laugh. 
    But Johnson says he agrees with NASCAR's tougher rules: "Yeah, absolutely. We need to be proactive. We need to separate ourselves from other sports.  We need to be on top of this stuff."
   His more immediate concern of course is that cut finger, injured in the 24 Hours. "It's good….got the stitches out," Johnson said. "It's still a little ugly and swollen, but I've got motion and grip. We've been working hard at the rehab center.
   "But I'm limited on training in general. The worse thing….would be to pull the tendon tight and break the sutures.
    "I think getting through the garage area is going to be more difficult.  I've been driving at home, and driving my Corvette, so I can do the shifting.
    "The toughest part I have is the real sharp turns."

    One man under the gun is Kyle Busch. He was out of the gate so strong last season, his first with Joe Gibbs, that he seemed almost a shoe-in for the championship. But problems early in the chase doomed him.
   Busch says he's approaching this season differently: "Last year my approach was different than it is this year because last year I was starting up with a new team.  I didn't have the experience with the team yet. 
   "I'm not starting as optimistic as I was last year, because we went through a whole year already together.  The season didn't end on a note that we really wanted it to, so I'm not going to start out with my year going way up here and having it fall. I'm just going to start out with it where we left off…and if we gain back on things, it will come back up."
   And Busch's new teammate, Logano? "Joey's got a lot going for him," Busch says. "He's a great talent. I think he can do the job, and he's got a team that has done the job. 
    "But he's got some big shoes to fill.
    "I expect him to run well. But I expect there to be a learning curve. This car isn't easy; you've got to learn some things about it."
    And then, of course, there is the economy. No driver here can escape that question.
   Busch: "I don't even know how bad the economy is; I don't pay attention to it.  From what I hear, it's bad and it's in the tank. 
   "I'm still fortunate enough to be in the sport and have a job with Joe Gibbs and get paid well enough that I can still live the same I was living last year.
   "Unfortunately for other people it has been a sucky year. They might have gotten laid off, they might be fighting for jobs, might be fighting for the time of their life. 
    "All we can do, if they're NASCAR fans, is try to put on a better show, and have them come out here and have a good time of entertainment.
     "Look at the biggest expenses -- hotels, fuel, tickets, plane tickets. So whether it's NASCAR cutting the deal with an airline where if they buy so many tickets to a race they get one free with an airline, or working a deal with a hotel chain to get cheaper tickets and the hotel chain can get their exclusive guest to a couple races, or any race….
   "Shell is a sponsor in the sport, so on race weekends maybe if they had the Shell station with half-price fuel….
  "That's the way to get more fans to the track. 
    "I believe sponsors in the sport could do a better job…NASCAR could do a better job…and the race tracks and promoters could do a better job. 
    "Us drivers can too -- but we can only go so far, because our time's limited, with sponsor obligations, media, here, there, running back and forth between Truck, Nationwide and Cup practices, qualifying, everything.
    "I'm always on my way to the next thing…and I'm already late. It's hard."


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