Gibbs punts on Pontiac in gearing for 500

Jan 21, 2003 6:37 AM

With only a few weeks of rest following the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup season, the drivers and teams are back to work preparing for the 2003 campaign.

There are a few new faces and many old faces in new places, but the biggest switch will be a manufacturer change for two of the top teams in NASCAR.

Joe Gibbs moved from the Pontiac Grand Prix to the Chevy Monte Carlo during the offseason. The change is a bit unusual considering Gibbs had won two of the last three points titles, having Bobby Labonte in 2000 and last year with Tony Stewart in the Pontiac.

"If we were in a (new) Pontiac today, would it be much different than the Chevrolet? Probably not," Labonte said. "But changing from the Pontiac of last year to the Chevrolet this year, there is some difference."

Roger Penske also made a switch with his two drivers, Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace, from the Ford Taurus to the Dodge Intrepid.

Newman and Wallace both completed Daytona testing and came away feeling very positive and confident with where they are as a team.

Other changes for 2003:

”¡ Elliott Sadler will be driving the M&M’s Ford for Robert Yates. The famed car that had some great moments as the Havoline No. 28 car will now be No. 38. The former driver, Ricky Rudd, will be driving for Sadler’s former owner, The Wood Brothers, in the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford.

Look for Sadler to have a breakout year and compete for a top 10 position in points. Conversely, expect a down year from Rudd with exception to quality runs on the roads and short tracks.

”¡ Jimmy Spencer was sent packing by Chip Ganassi. Rookie Casey Mears will pilot the No. 41 Target Dodge. Ganassi also gave Jamie McMurray a full time Cup ride in the new No. 42 Havoline Dodge.

McMurray guided Sterling Marlin’s car to victory last season as a substitute and should be the favorite to win rookie of the year. Spencer, meanwhile, is relegated to driving the low budget Ultra Motorsports No. 7 Dodge.

Ganassi is following a trend in which owners are want young impressionable drivers more likely to take direction. The young guns made a huge splash last year and now every owner wants one.

The Daytona 500 is only three weeks away and most of the Las Vegas books have all odds posted for The Budweiser Shootout and Daytona 500.

The shootout is a 70-lap, non-points race featuring all the Bud pole winners from the prior year and all active past champions of the shootout.

Despite its status as an exhibition race, it is the first competitive racing for what must seem an eternity to eager NASCAR fans. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7-2) and Tony Stewart (4-1) are listed as the favorites.

Station Casinos and the Palms sports books are the Las Vegas locales to have the odds posted.

Handicapping the Daytona 500 got a head start two weeks ago following the Daytona testing. There are several schools of thought that teams will pass along before, during, and after the initial Daytona testing.

Many teams suggest that those who don’t test well, particularly the good teams are sand-bagging in an effort to hold quality information from the other teams.

Others have said they go in to find the best combination to use to better prepare for NASCAR’s premier race. Whether these theories have credence, it is my opinion that these test times hold a tremendous amount of validity as to who will perform well in next month.

Last year, rookie Jimmie Johnson and eventual Daytona 500 Ward Burton were 1-2 in speed times during these January sessions.

Both were somewhat passed over by the betting public because perennial restrictor plate giants Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were right behind them.

However, at this particular time last year, Burton could have fetched a 35-1 price with Johnson at 65-1.

Of course Waltrip (7-1) and Junior (4-1) are going to be the drivers to beat again in the Great American Race.

It’s time to take a glance at what seems the possible value there based on recent Daytona testing. The names at the top of the list are a who’s who of bottom level drivers.

Mike Wallace (50-1), driving the No. 09 Dodge, recorded the fastest time. This is the same car that Geoffrey Bodine shocked everybody in last year with a third place finish in the Daytona 500. The car went on to perform very well in all restrictor plate races during its limited schedule last year. In early December, opening odds on Wallace at the Palms was 250-1, while Stations had him 150-1.

Mike Skinner (60-1) was second fastest in testing. The No. 4 Morgan-McClure Kodak made the switch to Pontiac from Chevrolet. The testing speeds should signal an alert that perhaps the Kodak team is ready for a return to Daytona glory. That car has won three Daytona 500’s.

Kyle Petty (75-1) comes in with the third fastest time in what may be the biggest shock of the whole testing session. Petty hasn’t been slightly competitive since returning to his father’s operation in 1997, but apparently they found something following teammate John Andretti’s poor test session the week prior to explain the great run. Petty was also the pole sitter for the 1993 Daytona 500. With the shared knowledge and co-mingling of information with the Petty camp, this could make Andretti (85-1) more valuable as well. Andretti does have a Daytona win to his credit, driving for Cale Yarborough, in the 1997 Firecracker.

If Petty’s strong run wasn’t the biggest shock of the two-week session, then Jimmie Johnson’s (18-1) poor run was. After being the overall fastest last year and sitting on the pole, Johnson’s crew had to go back to the drawing board. The information gained was to teammate Jeff Gordon’s (7-1) advantage, but still considerably off from last years blazing speeds.

A variety of opinions are reflected in the odds to win at various sports books in Nevada. This is the perfect time to wager on the Daytona 500 and get maximum value on drivers before the rush of wagers leading up to race change the odds.

Next week we’ll discuss the race for the race for the 2003 Winston Cup championship.