StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114003829813683.jpg’, ”, ‘Jeff Gordon’);
This Sunday, Feb. 19, will be the time to put up or shut up for a couple NASCAR stars.
After finishing outside the Top 10 in 2005, both Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have something to prove as the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup season gets underway at Daytona. Both drivers would like nothing more than to start the Race for the Chase with a win.
Gordon is the defending Daytona 500 champion; Earnhardt won it in 2004. If Gordon can defend his title, he would become only the third driver to post four or more wins at the 500. Only Richard Petty (seven wins) and Cale Yarborough (four wins) have more victories in NASCARs feature event.
After winning the Great American Race last season, Gordon finished the year in 11th place. He had four wins, eight top fives, and 14 top 10s. Not a bad year for most, but unacceptable to the four-time series champion. He is looking to return to the top this season, and he has made some changes in an effort to capture his fifth series championship.
Steve Letarte took over the crew chief responsibilities for the DuPont Chevrolet after race No. 26 last season. Knowing they werent in the race for the series championship, Gordons team used the final 10 races of the 2005 season as a way to prepare for this years attempt at a fifth title. The team feels they are already 10 races ahead of everyone else. Both Gordon and Letarte think the team has what it takes to become a champion. If successful, Gordon would trail only the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty, both with seven titles.
Third-generation driver Earnhardt Jr. finished a disappointing 19th last season. He had only one win during the 36-race schedule. He is predicting far greater things for his team this year. He told the media gathered at a pre-race conference that he had the strongest car going into the Daytona 500 and he would be the guy to beat. He also said his Budweiser No. 8 would have six or seven wins going into the chase this year, and, if he didnt win the series championship, he wouldnt lose it by much. Sounds awfully confident for a guy whose last victory came in July 2005.
Regardless of Sundays outcome, the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup season should be a fun one to watch. Can Tony Stewart successfully defend his title? Will this finally be the year for Mark Martin? Which, if any, of the seven rookies will make a name for himself? How many times will Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief, Rockford native Chad Knaus, find victory lane? Will Roush racing be as dominant again this year? All of these questions will be answered as the season unfolds.
Now lets go racing!!!
Doug Halberstadt is a local resident and is track announcer at Rockford Speedway. He can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
From the Feb. 15-21, 2006, issue