New season means a fresh start for many

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- When the new racing season starts in February, Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler will have new cars; Jamie McMurray and Martin Truex Jr. will have new teams; Kurt Busch and David Ragan will have new crew chiefs; Matt Kenseth will have a new sponsor; and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have a new beard.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. met with his fans last year at the Daytona 500. Earnhardt said he'll be a "little bit disappointed" if he doesn't win at least three times this year.  Morris News Service
Morris News Service
Dale Earnhardt Jr. met with his fans last year at the Daytona 500. Earnhardt said he'll be a "little bit disappointed" if he doesn't win at least three times this year.

And everyone will have new hope.

The sport has taken three months to get ready for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 14. That's plenty of time to build new cars and forge new relationships. And most important, it's a time when everyone enjoys a fresh start.

For the first time in a long time, Jimmie Johnson won't have a commanding lead in the points -- at least not for now. Everyone, including those who failed to make the 12-driver Chase for the Championship last year, will have the same chance to win it all.

Teams have filled missing voids by adding new drivers, new crew chiefs, new sponsors and new manufacturers. Others have simply refined what they already had. And everyone believes their changes will make a difference.

"I think it's going to be a great season," Clint Bowyer said. "This is an important season for us as an organization. We need to get things turned around, and Richard (Childress, car owner), he's given us everything we need. The pieces of the puzzle are there.

"What gives me the most optimism going into the season is the direction. Everybody is pulling in the same direction. Everybody is confident in that direction, and we're all working together."

Bowyer finished 15th in the points last year win no wins and just four top-five finishes. But going into Daytona, he has the same chance as Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, to win the Chase.

So does Earnhardt, who struggled with no victories and just two top-fives in a 25th-place finish. The off-season also allowed Earnhardt to get a fresh start and set lofty goals.

"Well, our goal is to win as many races as we can, win the championship, challenge for the championship," he said. "I'd like to win. I think anything less than three races this year I'd be a little bit disappointed, and depending on what tracks those are, you know, it would be great to win at some tracks we haven't necessarily been great on in the past."

Truex moved from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to Michael Waltrip Racing this year. The switch also includes a move from Chevrolet to Toyota, as well as a new crew chief.

The complete overhaul apparently has been refreshing.

"Things are looking great; I'm very happy with the team the way it's all came together, very much looking forward to the season," Truex said. "I think it's going to be a great one for all of us, and should be a lot of fun. I think it's going to be an easier transition than I thought.

"It's just a matter of getting in the groove, starting off on the right foot, getting that ball rolling, and then just keep it going."

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.

UPCOMING EVENTS

- Feb. 6 : Daytona Shootout, 8 p.m. (Fox)


- Feb. 11: Daytona Duels, 2 p.m. (SPEED)


- Feb. 14: Daytona 500, 1 p.m. (Fox)


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