Cup season full of promise


Super Bowl?

Who cares about stinking football when the Sprint Cup season opens in 16 days?

If you want a more precise countdown to the 50th edition of the Daytona 500, go to NASCAR.com for a blastoff clock that ticks off the seconds. If you stare at it for more than a minute, jump to DrPhil.com for counseling.

I wasn't in a rush for a new season to begin because it won't be over until November.

But I became energized after spending Monday and Tuesday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Cup testing in anticipation of what should be the most interesting Cup season in several years.

The UAW-Dodge 400 at Las Vegas finally might be a race that I won't need a Red Bull in one hand and coffee in the other. The combination of the speedway's first race with the Car of Tomorrow and a seasoned race track could provide more action.

The new car, which was used in 16 of last year's 36 points races, should produce more competitive races, including its inaugural run at LVMS. The CoT leveled the playing field, with bodies and chassis being nearly identical.

Fields will be loaded with talent and drama like never before. There's major lineup changes with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports and Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing. Open-wheel veterans Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier help comprise the most talented "rookie" class ever.

Former CART and Formula One champion Juan Pablo Montoya proved last year that an open-wheel driver successfully can make the transition to NASCAR.

He also was fastest at the speedway this week with a lap of 28.914 seconds (186.761 mph) on Tuesday. Montoya and five others topped the record qualifying lap of Kasey Kahne (29.212, 184.856) in March.

Drivers were pleased with how the speedway's 1.5-mile tri-oval has aged since almost all asphalt was replaced and banking nearly doubled a year ago. They even liked the Goodyear tires and hope similar ones are used for this year's race. Last year, many thought the tire used in the race was too hard for a virgin racing surface.

Generally, testing results bode well for a much better season and Las Vegas race.

GENTLEMAN JEFF -- Anyone who boos Jeff Gordon is an idiot. He's honest, articulate and accommodating. And he's a doting father -- you just shouldn't boo a good dad.

He came into the speedway media center after Monday's session under the weather. It was almost 5:30 p.m., and he didn't have to spend time with reporters. But he spent almost half an hour.

Gordon was asked if Earnhardt is a welcome addition and if he and Jimmie Johnson might become jealous about their new teammate's popularity.

"C'mon, man, it's Dale Earnhardt Jr. He's the most popular guy (in NASCAR) and the guy who gets the most media attention. That would be the case whether he's on your team or on any other team.

"As long as we focus on doing our jobs behind the wheel and working as best as we can as teammates and as individuals, we're going to get the benefits he brings."

When asked if Earnhardt might be overrated, Gordon said: "He wants to prove to everybody how talented he is. None of us (will know) until we see him in (better Hendrick) equipment. I've been impressed.

"I probably get the same criticism on the flip side that I'm not as good as my stats show because I've always been at Hendrick Motorsports. It works both ways."

Earnhardt won 5.8 percent of his Cup races (17 of 291) at Dale Earnhardt Inc.; Gordon has won 15.9 percent (81 in 509) at Hendrick.

Don't expect controversy in the Hendrick camp, but it will be fun to watch how that team performs.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.

 

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