DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Jimmie Johnson led the start of winter testing at Daytona International Speedway on Monday, a strong start for his 2002 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year campaign.
Driving a Chevrolet co-owned by Rick Hendrick and defending series champion Jeff Gordon, Johnson posted a lap of 183.120 mph in his new No. 48 Monte Carlo.
It was the fastest lap among 25 cars that made it onto the 2.5-mile, high-banked track for the first of six days of January testing at Daytona.
Stacy Compton, on his first day in A.J. Foyt’s Pontiac, was second fastest at 183.087, followed by Ward Burton in a Dodge at 183.064. Gordon was sixth-fastest at 182.685, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. next at 182.641.
Teams are testing a new aerodynamic and restrictor plate package intended to slow the cars while keeping them stable and more drivable. Johnson’s fast lap was close to Bill Elliott’s Daytona 500 pole-winning speed of 183.565 last year.
``It’s awesome to be able to come down here and turn in such a strong time,″ said Johnson, who ran in three Winston Cup races last year, finishing as high as 25th. ``This just shows how tough this whole Hendrick organization is.″
Gordon, who won his fourth series title in 2001, was proud of his protege, but warned that it’s too early to get excited.
``I told him he’s got to come back in February and do it,″ Gordon said, referring to the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 17.
In recent years, NASCAR has each car manufacturer do separate testing at Daytona. This year, all four makes have been invited, with some cars taking part this week and others testing for three days next week.