Daytona Flexes Cup Muscles, Trucks Mix It Up In Daytona Testing

Testing for the 50th-Annual Daytona 500 got back into gear Monday after a weekend of NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series action at the famed 2.5-mile Florida oval. Surprisingly, Toyota ? a brand new to the Cup ranks last season ? held eight of the top-10 speeds at the end of Monday?s morning practice session.

Is this a clue to what?s in store for this season?

Maybe, but probably not.

While the Toyota effort has been impressive in testing so far, the real proof will come when the green flag drops on the 2008 NASCAR season. Having the Joe Gibbs organization with Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch behind the wheel almost assures Toyota of its first win in Cup competition. It would be hard to fathom at least one of those drivers not winninga race or making the Chase at the end of the season as well.

Others, like Brian Vickers in a Team Red Bull entry, or last year?s top Toyota driver Dave Blaney could win a race as well. After that, it gets a little thin for Toyota as J.J. Yelley and A.J. Almendinger are Cup wanna-be?s while Michael Waltrip and Dale Jarrett are Cup used-to-be?s.

Nonetheless, Monday?s practice times indicate that all the homework Toyota has been doing in California and North Carolina is finally starting to pay off. If you look back at the brand?s success path in the Truck Series, it took Toyota about a year to get things right.

Look for that to be much of the same this year when Toyota becomes a major player in the Cup ranks.

Speaking of the Trucks, evidently some drivers didn?t get the memo that the weekend activities at Daytona were a test session.

New Roush Fenway teammates Joey Clanton and Colin Braun ? who were among the fastest trucks Friday morning – crashed together later that day while Ted Musgrave, David Starr and Brendan Gaughan also found trouble on Daytona?s tricky tri-oval layout in Friday?s PM session.

Truck speeds in Sunday?s ?drafting? session were in the high 185 miles per hour range, a full six miles an hour faster than the 179.508 mph pole speed set by Jack Sprague for last year?s race. Meanwhile, the best single truck speed this past weekend was Erik Darnell?s 178.547 in Saturday?s morning session.

The trucks will test again next week in Atlanta before they open this year?s 50th-Annual Daytona 500 tripleheader weekend on Friday, February 15.

Hasn?t been much noise around the new Nationwide Series as the other ?on track? divisions. That will change this Friday when the first of two sessions for the former Busch Series cars take to the speedway at Daytona. Nationwide testing continues through Tuesday, January 20.

Much of the off track news in the Nationwide Series has been about sponsorship, and the lack of it. Several teams, including Michael Waltrip Racing, McGill Motorsports, Yates Racing and Baker Curb Racing all announced sponsorship woes, cutbacks or actual pulling out of the series this year.

Bottom line – no funding. 

This will be a transitional year in the Nationwide Series. With a new ?Car of Tomorrow? like entry on the horizon for 2009, NASCAR is trying to reposition this series as a division apart of Cup and Truck ? but especially Cup. Allowing the division to morph into a 200 or 300 mile Saturday Cup teaser robbed the division of its identity and has made it less sellable, on both the team and corporate levels.

Changing this, in any way, is long overdue and we applaud NASCAR for any measure to re-establish the division as a series apart from all others ? not a Saturday afternoon Cup test/marketing opportunity.

Meanwhile, this season will be a wide-open affair with several Cup-supported teams battling it out for the majority of race wins and the championship.

This column is a day late this week thanks to a weekend off.

I was fully planning on attending the Daytona Truck Series test when the opportunity to attend the Green Bay-Seattle NFL playoff game in Green Bay was presented. It was tough to give up Daytona, but Lambeau is a special place and the seats – 24 rows off the field at the 35 – were too good to pass up.

Am I glad I went to Green Bay.

The game in Lambeau was an incredible happening in a stadium known for legendary events. The 3-4 inches of snow that fell throughout the game made it seem like you were in a snow globe along with 72,000 other crazies who saw the Packers beat the Seahawks. It was another event in Packers lore and my son Sam, godson Ken, his son Alex and I were able to be there for it.

Way cool.

In an incredible turn of good luck, the Packers will host the NFC Championship Game this Sunday. Even better yet is I have those same four seats ? 24 rows off the field at the 35 ? for that game.

This time, instead of snow, it?s supposed to be freezing cold ? a predicted high of 11 and near or below zero by the time the game ends around 8:30 local time.

Don?t expect next week?s column much before Tuesday. It?s going to take that long to thaw out.

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