NASCAR beginning to rev up

Well, it's just a little more than a month away from the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, the prelude to the Daytona 500 and the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup championship season.

But while race fans are counting the days, the teams are already hard at work. Tomorrow morning the Nextel Cup cars that were in odd-numbered positions in the point standings (as of last July 12) will take to the Daytona track for three days of pre-season testing in what is officially titled the Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder. Cars that held even numbered point standing spots will get their turn starting January 15.

The following week, teams in even-number positions in the car owner standings as of July 12 will test from Monday, Jan. 15 through Wednesday, Jan. 17. The Busch series teams will get their testing opportunity in two sessions starting January 19, with the Craftsman Truck test sandwiched in between the two Nextel Cup test rounds.

The competition just to make a Nextel Cup race will be fierce this year. Fifty-two full-time teams are expected, with another 16 part-timers anticipated. If everybody shows up at Daytona, there will be 33 drivers trying to qualify for the nine spots available after the 35 teams with the highest point totals from 2006 are locked in.

Sponsors will not be happy if the cars bearing their logo don't make races consistently, so we can expect personnel changes among poorly performing teams to begin early in the season. However, don't expect the part-time teams to participate in the 16 races that will feature the Car of Tomorrow, as the expense of building one will probably be beyond the budgets of the part-timers. Of the 52 full-time Nextel Cup teams in 2007, 23 will run Chevrolets, 13 will have Dodges, nine will field Fords, and newcomer Toyota will put seven entries on the track. On numbers alone, the Chevys have the advantage . . . but when you consider that the Hendrick, Childress, and Gibbs racing teams field the bowtie brand, it seems as though that advantage is overwhelming.

Roush Racing's five teams will lead the Ford pack while Robert Yates Racing tries to recapture the magic. Ganassi Racing looks to be the Dodge standard-bearer unless Penske shows marked improvement on last season. The Toyotas are as yet an unknown quantity, but TRD, the racing arm of Toyota, is second to none in putting together a strong program no matter what the challenge.

It appears there will also be a strong Rookie class in Cup this season. Paul Menard will move up from the Busch series to drive the No. 15 DEI Chevy; David Reutimann will be aboard the No. 00 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, and will run the Busch series as well.

Regan Smith will partner with Mark Martin in the Ginn Racing (formerly MB2) No. 01 Chevy. David Ragan will take over the familiar No. 6 Roush Racing Ford that was Mark Martin's ride for so many years, and Brandon Whitt will make his Cup debut in the No. 72 CJM Racing Chevy.

Champ Car transfer A.J. Allmendinger will have his work cut out for him adjusting to big sedans and the all-new No. 84 Red Bull Racing Toyota, while "rookie" Indy 500 winner and Formula 1 veteran Juan Pablo Montoya will continue his "rubbing is racing" education aboard the No. 42 Ganassi Racing Dodge. Personally, I think the race for the rookie title may be even more interesting than the Chase for the Nextel Cup this year.

If you are up early reading this, turn the TV on to ESPN2 and catch an episode of "Michael Waltrip Racing: A New Era," at 7 am. If you missed it, there's another episode at 8 p.m. this evening. This documentary series is part of the extensive racing coverage that ESPN is airing now that the network is back in the racing game.

I hope that ESPN maintains relatively high standards in its racing programming. The SPEED channel has done a pretty good job over the past few years, but we could have done without shows like "NASCAR Nation" and "I Want to Date a Race Driver." ESPN, are you listening?

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