Stewart enjoys status as defending champ

Saturday, February 11, 2006

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tony Stewart marked his time off by flipping a sprint car during a race, visiting the White House and battling a winter cold. It was hardly the restful, relaxing offseason he had in mind.

Now, a mere two months after winning his second Nextel Cup championship, Stewart heads to Daytona International Speedway to begin his title defense. The 2006 season revs up tonight with the made-for-TV Budweiser Shootout, followed by the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.

Although he's had little time to catch his breath, Stewart is ready to race again.

"It's a nice feeling starting the season knowing we're the defending champions," he said. "With that, I mean, it starts the year off right for our team. Everybody is positive and having fun.

"We're not going to reinvent the wheel this year. We're just going to keep doing what we've been doing all along."

For Stewart and some others, that philosophy may very well translate into another successful year. But for Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the rest of the 2005 also-rans, the new season marks a fresh start in the race to make the Chase for the Championship.

Both Gordon and Earnhardt, NASCAR's two biggest stars, failed to make the field last year and were forced to watch the championship battle from afar.

Each driver used their time out of contention to get a jump on 2006. Gordon replaced veteran crew chief Robbie Loomis with newcomer Steve Letarte for the final 10 races of last year, while Earnhardt reunited with Tony Eury Jr.

Now both believe they head into the new year well prepared to turn their past troubles around.

"Our goal this year is to just come out of the box, be better in our performance, put ourselves into those positions to have good luck and good things happen for us," Gordon said. "Chemistry with the team is obviously really important. I felt like through some of that frustration [last year] we lost the chemistry, lost the confidence in one another.

"I know I lost confidence in what I was doing out there. It's just about building that back."

Their progress is just one of the many story lines in NASCAR this season.

* The sanctioning body will be keeping a close eye on its new testing limits, which only allows teams to practice at six specific sanctioned facilities. Teams used to be able to test at seven tracks of their choice.

* A new tire-leasing program will also be implemented, preventing teams from stockpiling unused Goodyears. The new policy calls for Goodyear to distribute tires prior to the start of each NASCAR test session and sanctioned event, and all unused tires will be collected.

On the track, Kurt Busch will try to reverse one of the biggest tumbles from the top in NASCAR history. He won the title two seasons ago, then spent much of last year finagling his way out of his Roush deal so he could replace Rusty Wallace at Penske Racing. His release finally secured, the Roush camp kicked him to the curb with two races left in the season after he had an altercation with Phoenix police.

Terry Labonte will be a part-time driver for Hall of Fame Racing, the team owned by former NFL quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. He'll drive seven in all for the upstart team, give way to Tony Raines for the rest of the season, and finish his career out with 10 races for Hendrick Motorsports.

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