The off-season never lasts long in NASCAR's Nextel Cup racing series. The time for celebrating Tony Stewart's 2005 championship, or for commiserating over the unexpectedly poor showings by Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., officially ended this week.
Testing for the Daytona 500 began Monday at Daytona International Speedway in Florida, and already expectations are being raised throughout the Cup series. Few will face more pressure this season than Gordon and Earnhardt. They missed the season-ending Chase for the Nextel Cup last year and changed crew chiefs late in the year.
Each has higher hopes for 2006.
"Only time will tell as to what we're really going to be capable of this year," Gordon, the four-time champion, said during a news conference at Daytona yesterday. "But right now I feel like we're as good as anybody out there."
Gordon felt that way about the same time last year, and he went on to win the Daytona 500. But despite four victories, Gordon missed a spot in the 10-car field for the Chase because of a midseason slump. He finished in 11th place over all.
Along the way, Gordon dropped Robbie Loomis as his crew chief and switched to Steve Letarte, who is only 26. The move helped Gordon win at Martinsville late in the season, and the team showed enough improvement to encourage Gordon for this year's Daytona 500, on Feb. 19. It is the first race of the season.
"I don't know if we had to go win a championship in February, if that was the final event, that we'd be ready for that," Gordon said. "But I really believe just in the last 10 races of last year, what I saw in Steve was unbelievable, and that really has me excited about getting this season started."
Earnhardt, whose relationships with crew chiefs are seemingly always on edge, is facing fewer questions about the transition back to the crew chief Tony Eury Jr.
Earnhardt and Eury are cousins and worked together for years on the No. 8 Chevrolet before a falling out late in the 2004 season. Management at Dale Earnhardt Inc. separated the two last year, moving Eury to the No. 15 of the former DEI driver Michael Waltrip. The move failed; Earnhardt struggled and finished 19th in the standings a year after challenging for the title.
Earnhardt and Eury were reunited late last season.
"It feels good working with Tony Jr.," Earnhardt said in a news conference at Daytona on Monday. "It feels good to go into the shop and talk to him about the cars, and know when he is talking about his cars, he is talking about my cars, too.
"It feels good and I'm looking forward to getting some races under our belts, getting into victory lane as fast as we can."
DEI will have to produce engines that Eury and Earnhardt can win with, another issue for the team last season.
Stewart had every answer last season when he dominated the Chase and captured his second career title. An Indiana native, Stewart also won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Stewart has not run out of goals. The only major Nextel Cup race he has not won is the Daytona 500.
This could be his year. Stewart dominated for much of the last two Daytona 500's, finishing second in 2004, and he won his first Cup race at the speedway when he captured the Pepsi 400 last July.
"Our No. 1 goal this year is to go win the Daytona 500," he said.