Johnson starting over with Daytona testing

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Two stories that will get attention during testing at Daytona International Speedway are linked by No.48.

Beginning Monday, Jimmie Johnson and his No.48 Chevrolet team officially will start working toward repeating as the Daytona 500 and the Nextel Cup champion.

It has been a while since anybody did either. Sterling Marlin was the last driver to win the 500 in two straight years, 1994 and 1995. Jeff Gordon was the last back-to-back champion, in 1997 and 1998, and since then no champion has finished better than fourth the following year.

Crew chief Chad Knaus knows what the team accomplished last year doesn’t count one bit once the new season gets going.

“You can’t begin to push immediately to go back out and repeat because then the guys don’t feel like they’ve done anything,” Knaus said. “You want to give them the opportunity to bask in the glory a little bit. You want them to be able to feel it.

“We’ve let the guys have their time and we’re going to let it kind of roll through the Daytona test. We feel very confident that the product that we’re going to take to Daytona is good. When we get back and get going toward the Las Vegas test and get ready to head down to Daytona that’s when we’ll start pushing again.”

Johnson will be joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne from last year’s Chase for the Nextel Cup in this week’s testing, which will run through Wednesday. Tony Stewart’s team will be there, but Mike McLaughlin will drive the No.20 Chevrolet in the test. P.J. Jones will drive Robby Gordon’s No.7 Chevrolet in the test.

Dave Blaney, Brian Vickers and Dale Jarrett will put their Toyotas through the manufacturers’ first official Cup activity.

Also on the first week’s schedule are Reed Sorenson, Casey Mears, Joe Nemechek, Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray, Scott Riggs, Bobby Labonte, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Green, Tony Raines, Ricky Rudd, Morgan Shepherd, Eric McClure, Kirk Shelmerdine and Scott Wimmer, who will be in a Richard Childress Racing car.

The rest of the teams will come to town in two weeks, and among them apparently will be James Hylton.

Hylton, 72, is from Inman, S.C. The last time he raced in the Cup series was March 28, 1993, when he ran 62 laps in the TranSouth 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and, according to the record books, “quit.”

Hylton kept racing. He made 16 Automobile Racing Club of America starts last season, in fact, and made one Busch Series race. That came at Milwaukee, where he ran four laps and went out, according to the record books, because of “brakes.”

There will be those who turn Hylton’s bid to make this year’s Daytona 500, with a car and engine he bought from Childress, into a noble quest.

If he’s planning to do a “start and park,” there’s nothing noble or heroic about that. Financially it might make sense for Hylton, but there’s a basic unfairness to those who will be testing at Daytona because they’re trying to get ready to race this year.

Hylton said he wants his team to run up to 19 Cup races this year with Damon Lusk in the car, which will be the No.58 since Johnson is kind of busy with the No.48, the number Hylton used during his heyday. Maybe he’s trying to use the money he could win by finishing last in the sport’s richest race to help fund that effort. Who knows?

It might not be the best precedent for NASCAR to ban Hylton simply because he’s 72 – not if he can pass the same physical every other driver in the sport must pass. But just because Hylton can’t easily be stopped from trying to make the Daytona 500, that doesn’t make it something he ought to be doing.

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