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Drivers get back into the groove

Posted: Thursday, January 09, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Even before his vacation started, Mark Martin was talking about getting back to work.

Martin, one of many drivers who feel the 38-race season is too demanding, was happy to be home for the holidays. Now that testing has started at Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500 in February, he's happy the off-season is over.

''I'm going to enjoy the time off,'' Martin said before Christmas. ''But come January, I'll be ready to get back after it.''

Cruises, Caribbean vacations and snow skiing trips made up a big portion of December for many drivers, but the never-ending quest for speed now consumes everyone.

''If it were up to me, I'd race every week,'' Jerry Nadeau said. ''I never get tired of this.''

Twenty-five teams have been at Daytona to test new cars for the season-opening race Feb. 16 that's half of the teams that are expected to attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500. The other half will test for three days next week, starting at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

The sanctioning body doesn't allow testing until Jan. 1, leaving December as the only ''down time'' during a season that starts in February and ends in November.

Now that testing is permitted, teams will be busy.

''While we're at Daytona, Ryan (Newman) is at Lakeland (Fla.) testing,'' Rusty Wallace said of his Penske Racing teammate.

''We're going to Kentucky, Lakeland and even College Station (Texas) to test before the (Day tona) 500.''

Bobby Labonte is cautiously eager to get back on the job. He's ready to drive in the Daytona 500, but he's not happy about trading his vacation for a month of testing and preparation.

''What off-season?'' he asked. ''Christmas? I enjoyed my time off, but I wish we could go straight from the off-season to the Daytona 500.''

Wallace spent some of his off-season skiing and riding snowmobiles. Series champion Tony Stewart went fishing off the Florida Keys. Martin and Labonte spent time at home and attended quarter-midget races with their sons in Apopka, Fla. Mike Skinner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson went on cruises.

Stewart said the time away from the sport allowed him to forget some of the problems that plagued his championship season. The off-season, and the focus on a new season allowed him to head into the first test session refreshed.

''I've eliminated all brain tumors over the off-season, so I'm tumor-free right now,'' he said, jokingly. ''I think the goal I set for myself is to have fun strictly to have fun.''

It was difficult for some to enjoy the off-season. Car owner Andy Petree and drivers Bobby Hamilton, Jimmy Spencer, Mike Wallace and Ken Schrader spent most of their vacations looking for sponsorship or a ride.

Spencer landed work with the Ultra Motorsports No. 7 Dodge a week ago, and Wallace got a part-time gig with the Phoenix Motorsports No. 09 Dodge this week.

Hamilton was the odd man out, so he's decided to build his own truck and compete on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2003.

Petree, who enjoyed two victories in 2001, only has a sponsorship deal for the Daytona 500. If he can't find help after that, one of the most storied teams in the sport the same team that carried Harry Gant to fame might have to fold.

Regardless, the vacation is over.

''We enjoyed our holidays,'' Stewart said. ''We're back, and it's been nice to get back.''

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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