It's no surprise when a Dale Earnhardt Inc. car leads the field at Daytona International Speedway, and that tradition held fast - literally - yesterday [Tuesday].

Driving for DEI, John Andretti (#1 Chevrolet) turned the quickest time (187.044 mph) during yesterday's morning session of NASCAR Preseason Thunder, the annual preseason test sessions at Daytona.

He was second-fastest in the afternoon (187.516), trailing only Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe's Chevrolet), who led that session at 187.535.

Andretti, who finished the 2003 season driving the #1 car, was followed in the morning by Ken Schrader (#49 BAM Racing Dodge), who was second at 186.718, and Ricky Rudd (#21 Motorcraft Ford), who was third at 186.525. Second-year series driver Casey Mears (#41 Target Dodge) was fourth at 186.447, and Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe's Chevrolet) rounded out the top five at 186.393.

In the afternoon, former series champion Bill Elliott (#91 Dodge) was third-fastest at 187.313. Rudd was fourth at 187.270, and Schrader was fifth at 186.780.

The luxury of shared data likely benefited Andretti, whose DEI team-mate Michael Waltrip (#15 NAPA Chevrolet), the reigning and two-time Daytona 500 champion, led all six of last week's test sessions. Waltrip also posted the fastest overall lap of 187.731. Another DEI team-mate, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (#8 Budweiser Chevrolet), led last Thursday's drafting session.

The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series teams testing this week are the teams which finished in even-number positions in 2003 car owner points. Teams which finished in odd-number positions in 2003 car owner points tested last week (January 6-8).

The 2000 series champion, Bobby Labonte (#18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet) is among the 27 drivers testing this week, and was in playful spirits Tuesday morning as he met with media prior to the first test session. He used a digital camera to snap several impromptu photos during the interview.

Turning serious, the driver who finished eighth last season in the NASCAR Top 10 hopes to continue a renaissance. After several sub-par seasons following his title year, Labonte bounced back in 2003 with new crew chief Michael 'Fatback' McSwain, two wins and a stellar finish. He'd like to take more significant steps this season.

"I think our consistency was off some last year," said Labonte, who won the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "We had good stretches and then we had bad stretches."

He'd like to start with a good stretch - preferably a win in the season-opening 46th annual Daytona 500 on February 15. Labonte was ninth-fastest (185.529) in the morning. He fell to 24th (185.384) in the afternoon.

"It's real important," Labonte said of Speedweeks. "We want to start the year off right. We'd like to come down here and have a good week. It can go either way."

And what he'd really like is a Daytona 500 win.

"I've been fortunate enough to win some other big races but this is one I haven't won," Labonte said. "It would be great to win this one."

 

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