They may look young on their driver licenses and birth certificates, but behind the wheel, some guys just seem ageless.

- Session 2, Day 3 Speeds

That?s the peer consensus, anyway, as Brian Vickers (No. 25 GMAC Financial Services Chevrolet) begins preparations for his rookie season in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.

Vickers is getting his first big-league taste during this week?s NASCAR Preseason Thunder, the annual preseason test sessions at Daytona International Speedway. And he?s doing it while occupying the same garage as four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), two-time series champion Terry Labonte (No. 5 Kellogg?s/got milk? Chevrolet) and last season?s runnerup in the NASCAR Top 10, Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe?s Chevrolet). All are Vickers? Hendrick Motorsports teammates, and all four drivers officially went to work together during Tuesday?s first two test sessions.

?It?s very exciting, obviously,? said Vickers, not quite three months removed from his 20th birthday. ?It?s one of the most exciting times of my life. Jeff Gordon was talking about that yesterday, [saying] it brings back memories of all the engineers and great people at Hendrick Motorsports.?

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

Vickers, the 2003 NASCAR Busch Series champion, was 17th-fastest during Wednesday?s morning session (185.464 mph) and 14th in the afternoon (186.683). Working with veteran crew chief Peter Sospenzo, he?d like to keep pace this week with his more renowned teammates.

?Somewhere along the line, [Brian has] picked up a great deal of maturity and commitment to racing and it shows,? said Johnson, beginning his third year in NASCAR?s premier series. ?To be able to win the Busch championship and be as competitive as I know he?s going to be in Cup, he definitely has his act together.?

Gordon, who co-owns Johnson?s team with owner Rick Hendrick, mentored Johnson in 2002. Now, he and Johnson are happy to double-team mentoring duties with Vickers.

?If you get to this point, you usually have a lot of talent,? Gordon said of Vickers. ?You start separating yourself when you can analyze things in a split second. That?s what I see in him. We?re really excited to have him on board.?

Vickers is excited to be on board. A 2004 Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate, he knows one key will be how well he learns on the track, off it, and at the shop.

?I?ve got a lot of great people there at Hendrick Motorsports,? Vickers said. ?Everything?s mental. You just put your mind toward it and adapt.?


Dynamic duo... They?ve been compared since their rookie season of 2002, and as they prepare for their third season in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, Johnson and Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge) find themselves still being measured by each other.

?We?ve been competing against each other since 1999 when we were both trying to get into the NASCAR world and competing for Busch rides,? said Johnson, who led Wednesday?s morning session at 187.398 mph and was third in the afternoon at 187.731. ?We?ve always had a great relationship. We really respect one another on and off the track. That has carried through to today.?

?I?m aware of everybody as a competitor,? Newman said

, who was ninth fastest in the morning (186.031). ?I know Jimmie is a great competitor. We?ve had a good relationship to this point and I hope to continue that.?

Both Johnson and Newman are being targeted as early-season championship favorites. Both accept the attention, although Newman declined to speculate on a detailed list of contenders.

?I guess the best way to gauge it is the top 10 from last year,? Newman said, ?but everything else is just pure opinion. There?s some tough competitors outside of the top 10, so I?m limiting it to that, but the top 10 is a good place to start.?

?The teams that have been up front and that are able to respond quickly to rules changes will continue to be there,? Johnson said. ?I certainly feel that my team is going to be one of those.?

Ricky Rudd (No. 21 Motorcraft Ford), NASCAR?s ?Ironman,? visited with the media following Wednesday?s afternoon test session. He?s beginning his second season with Wood Brothers Racing, and his first full season with a new crew chief, Ben Leslie. The combination seems to be paying off early; Rudd was among the top five fastest drivers in both Tuesday sessions; and third in Wednesday?s morning session (187.278). He led the afternoon session with a top lap of 188.470 ? the fastest time to date in NASCAR Preseason Thunder.

?We?re really pleased with that,? Rudd said. ?Gosh, it?s been a long time since I?ve been at the top of the speed charts at Daytona. So we?re really pleased.?

?A lot of times when we?re down here we struggle a bit,? said co-owner Eddie Wood. ?But we?ve run well so far.?

Rudd said a combination of things seemed to have given his crew a boost, particularly more consistent engineering help. One of NASCAR?s most historic teams, the Wood Brothers organization dates to 1953. Over the winter, the team shop moved from its home base of Stuart, Va. to the Charlotte, N.C. area to take better advantage of an engineering and engine alliance with Roush Racing.

?They moved the shop to the technical people,? Rudd said.

?It was a tough decision to even think about when it came up,? Wood said. ?But now that?s done and everything?s in place and up and running, I think it?ll really benefit us.?

Etc...Jeff Burton (No. 99 Ford) announced Wednesday that Turner Network Television (TNT) will be his primary sponsor for the Daytona 500. An avid basketball fan, Burton said the sponsorship will help promote the NBA All-Star event. ? Wednesday afternoon produced not only Rudd?s top speed, but also the second-fastest NASCAR Preseason Thunder mark ? John Andretti?s (No. 1 Chevrolet) lap of 188.198. Andretti trailed only Rudd in the afternoon session.

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