- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 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 is back at Daytona International Speedway to begin his title defense. The 2006 season got under way with last weekend’s made-for-TV Budweiser Shootout and builds up through a week’s worth of events to Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Although he has 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 might 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.

Gordon and Earnhardt, NASCAR’s two biggest stars, failed to make the Chase last year and were forced to watch the championship battle from afar. Each used his 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 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 also will be implemented, preventing teams from stockpiling unused Goodyears. The new policy calls for Goodyear to distribute tires before the start of each NASCAR test session and sanctioned event, and all unused tires will be collected.

NASCAR also will spend the year readying itself for Toyota’s entry into Cup racing in 2007. The Japanese automaker is expected to pursue some top-level drivers and undoubtedly will have Kevin Harvick on the top of its wish list unless car owner Richard Childress can sign him to a long-term extension before he becomes a free agent.

And teams will be forced to focus on the Car of Tomorrow, a NASCAR-designed chassis that will begin racing on a limited basis in 2007.

The on-track competition will center on Roush Racing, which placed all five of its cars in the Chase last season. It will be difficult to repeat, but it’s hard to figure who might falter. Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards were stout all season, and Mark Martin will try to mark his final season (for real this time!) with a championship. Matt Kenseth is a proven winner, and Jamie McMurray will be stepping into a strong ride as Kurt Busch’s replacement.

Busch, meanwhile, will be trying 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.

Busch, one of the least popular drivers on the circuit, now will try to rebuild himself in the No. 2 Dodge — one of the most recognizable cars in NASCAR.

“It still feels strange for many different reasons — I kind of feel a little like Rusty Wallace,” Busch said. “I think of it more as just carrying on his legacy, the good times he’s had, the championship, all the race wins.”

Bobby Labonte will be looking to reclaim some of the glory of his earlier years. The 2000 Cup champion has struggled since, hasn’t won in 72 races and was 24th in points last year. He split with Joe Gibbs Racing to drive for underwhelming Petty Enterprises — but in the famed No.43 Dodge. He will be working with Loomis, who won a championship with Gordon, and veteran crew chief Todd Parrott, who earned a title with Dale Jarrett, in an effort to jump-start his career.

Meanwhile, brother Terry will end a 29-year career at the end of 2006. The two-time series champion will run a limited schedule this year, starting with the first five races of the season in the cockpit of NASCAR’s newest team.

Terry Labonte will be a part-time driver for Hall of Fame Racing, the team owned by former Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. He will drive seven in all for the upstart team, give way to Tony Raines for the rest of the season and finish his career with 10 races for Hendrick Motorsports. He’s not sure what his final event, the Nov. 5 race at Texas Motor Speedway, will be like.

“I haven’t given it a lot of thought,” he said. “Last year was a little adjustment, but I really enjoyed the limited deal. It was nice to sit back and not go to every race. I’m not sure what it’s going to feel like to not go to any races at all.”

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