HOMESTEAD, Fla. - The finish line at the Homestead-Miami Speedway was still stained with victory champagne Monday morning when Tony Stewart went back to work.
Sixteen hours after the final lap of the 2002 season, the 2003 campaign was already at full throttle on the south Florida racetrack. Stewart, 15 other NASCAR Winston Cup Series regulars and a handful of Busch Series drivers were shaking down new cars in a two-day test session, proving again there is no off-season in motorsports.
"Last night was New Year's Eve," said Terry Laise, an assistant staff engineer with General Motors. "The new year for us started at midnight after the (final) race. It's a brand new season. Everyone is starting with no points (in the standings)."
The General Motors camp has a lot of work to do in the short-two month off-season. Chevrolet and Pontiac each have new body styles for next season as NASCAR continues to bring the manufacturers closer in design.
For Stewart, that meant spraying champagne on his team and fans after the race, spending the night in the racetrack's infield and clocking in Monday morning. His team is switching from Pontiac to Chevrolet, so he and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte will be spending a lot of off-days to get back up to speed.
As a reward for winning the championship, crew chief Greg Zipadelli told Stewart he could show up a half-hour late on Monday.
"Don't think I won't take it," Stewart said.
The new Monte Carlo and Grand Prix are strikingly familiar to the Dodge Intrepid and Ford Taurus already on the circuit. NASCAR helped engineers from General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler in developing their cars in an effort to make them easier to police.
By making them similar, NASCAR can use many of the same templates during their inspection process. In fact, of the 34 templates to measure cars, the different manufacturers will share 19 next year.
Laise insists there still are subtle differences in the cars.
"The cars have been brought in line with what NASCAR wanted to do," Laise said. "Anytime you get away from racing a production car to a specification car, you worry about (losing brand identity). We managed to keep a lot of brand character in these cars. At the same time, you can't give up competitiveness. It's a lot of give and take."
It's also a lot of work.
NASCAR granted General Motors an exemption in its restrictions on testing. Teams are not allowed to test at raceways that host Winston Cup events until January. Because they have new designs, Chevrolet and Pontiac were given two days immediately following the season-finale to find enough answers to keep them busy refining the cars until after Christmas.
"How are the cars? How are they different (and the older models)? What do we need to do to make them better? Those are the questions we're looking at (during the test)," Laise said.
The greenhouse - the area from the front windshield to the rear window - now is identical on all cars. The differences are in the front and rear bumpers.
The new Monte Carlo and Grand Prix have extended snouts with flattened edges. The new front bumpers are supposed to give them more front-wheel traction.
General Motors teams weren't the only ones eager to get back at full speed. Mark Martin tested his Ford at the Kentucky Speedway on Tuesday. Most teams already have test dates scheduled later this month and in December at speedways that don't host Winston Cup races.
"(Martin) has set for himself a work schedule and workout schedule and a testing schedule that he thinks will put him in the best situation to be at his best next year and I guess he doesn't want to waste a day," car owner Jack Roush said.
"What off-season?" Steve Park said during a break at Homestead. "We have a lot to learn about these new cars and a short time to get there. We have to find a balance with these cars and the only way to do it is with testing.
"In its infancy, the new (Monte Carlo) is as good, maybe a tick better, than the old one. And we have a lot of room to make it better. We had gone as far as we could with the old car. I think we're closer to the Fords and Dodges now."
The cars at the General Motors test were missing their corporate colors. They were painted in primer gray and black. The only people at the raceway the day after the season ended were race teams and a handful of workers cleaning up the mess of a busy weekend. Even when people weren't watching, the pace was hectic.
"There isn't a lot of time for just kicking back and relaxing," Zipadelli said.
Stewart seemed eager to do his part during the test. By mid-morning, his new Monte Carlo already was as fast as his old Pontiac.
"There is not going to be a lot of time to reflect on it," Stewart said of the championship. "It just shows you that it can be done and it's probably going to make us work even harder to try to do it again."
Even if that work cuts into the celebration. And the off-season.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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