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In NASCAR, even ceremonial photo risky

DAYTONA BEACH — It could have been the best and worst photo opportunity in NASCAR history. Four of the series' most successful drivers were asked to make a slow revolution around Daytona International Speedway to complete a news conference commemorating Hendrick Motorsports' 25 years in Sprint Cup.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., three-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time titlist Jeff Gordon and veteran Mark Martin, a newcomer to the team, were completing their controlled lap in their made-for-diecast-marketing silver race cars when Martin had a thought.

"I think we had the agreement we were supposed to come by nose to nose, but when they said that, I was like, 'Yeah, we're race car drivers. Somebody's going to have to be a little ahead of the other one,' " said Martin, laughing. "I'm not really sure (who 'won'). I hope it was a good picture. I was looking under the steering wheel. I was. So we were doing the best we could."

It took the best from Johnson and Gordon not to turn the shot into an accident scene. The deceptively narrow front stretch barely accommodated a four-wide pack even at one-third speed.

"You can see the tire mark on Jeff's car," Johnson said, pointing to the No. 24 Chevrolet. "There wasn't a lot of room, so I was a little worried we were going to cause a four-car pileup. I wasn't as concerned where the nose of the car was, but I thought for a second there we were all going to stack them up. It would have been (a great) shot."

FAST START: Semiretired former series champ Bill Elliott led both Daytona 500 practices Saturday in the Wood Brothers' No. 21 Ford, pacing the field at 187.645 mph in the morning and 187.950 in two laps in the afternoon. The legendary car must qualify for the race on speed. The Wood Brothers are four-time 500 winners.

NEW BLOOD: Kurt Busch suggested that Ryan Newman might not have given Penske Racing a full effort after it became apparent he was considering leaving after nine seasons. Newman eventually signed with Stewart Haas and was replaced by test driver David Stremme.

"It was tough to go through the process because any time you're a lame duck, it doesn't feel like you're getting 100 percent out of him," Busch said. "That was last season. This is now. It's amazing the energy level David Stremme has compared to where Ryan was in July last year vs. January this year. It's a good mix with enthusiasm and optimism."

POWWOW: NASCAR chairman Brian France said he will meet team owners in the next few weeks "to talk about all we can do together to weather the (economic) storm."

"We'll leave the stimulus package to the government," he said. "What we can do is work with all the stakeholders in the sport, and it's not hard work because obviously everybody is very interested and understands what they're up against, whether it's tracks, team owners, drivers."

In NASCAR, even ceremonial photo risky 02/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 9:15pm]
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