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New car gives champ little time to relax

Less than 18 hours after winning the Winston Cup championship, Tony Stewart and his Joe Gibbs Racing team began preparations for their title defense.

What celebration?

What offseason?

Stewart was among several drivers scheduled for a General Motors test session that began at 9 a.m. Monday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, though crew chief Greg Zipadelli generously gave the newly crowned champ and well-known late riser permission to be a half-hour late.

"Don't think I won't take it," Stewart said, joking.

With Bobby Labonte and Stewart, Gibbs won two of the past three Winston Cup titles fielding Pontiacs, but it will switch next season to Chevrolet. Both General Motors manufacturers have new models for 2003, and Stewart needed to test the Monte Carlo.

There is work to be done.

"It just never stops, and it's worse on Zippy and the guys on the crew than it is on myself," Stewart said. "These guys have been cutting bodies off the cars to get new bodies put on for next year."

Zipadelli must oversee the preparation of a new fleet of No. 20 cars for Stewart next season. Though work has begun, input from Stewart will be critical to a strong start in 2003. Testing at Daytona International Speedway begins Jan. 7, in seven weeks.

"There isn't a lot of time for just kicking back and relaxing," Zipadelli said. "We won't have to come to the racetrack, but we'll be able to spend a bunch of hours at the shop, and to me that is the fun part of year: preparing and going to work every day and spending time with the people that help us build and prepare the cars."

Though Stewart would like to sample "civilian life" for a few days, he knows the team cannot afford to ease off the throttle just because it has a Winston Cup title.

"There is not going to be a lot of time to reflect on it," he said. "I don't think it's going to change a lot. It's not going to change me in any way. 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."

UP TO SPEED: Lakeland native Joe Nemechek, whose career has been plagued by sponsor troubles and mediocre equipment, believes he turned a corner this season with Hendrick Motorsports.

Nemechek replaced Jerry Nadeau in the No. 25 Chevrolet this season with no guarantee for the future, but he recently signed a contract for next season. Sunday, he led a race-high 11 laps and finished second to Kurt Busch in the Ford 400, his second runner-up in the final three races.

"I think I'm in the prime of my career," said Nemechek, a two-time winner in nine years of Winston Cup racing. "I've got a good job for next year. I turned 39 years old not long ago and I know I can get it done on the racetrack. It's a matter of getting all the right pieces to the puzzle: crew chief, team. The whole deal is what makes you go fast out there."

NO DEBATE: Word has it, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman raised the standard for rookies. Johnson won three times and finished fifth in the standings. Newman won once and finished sixth, claiming rookie of the year honors with 14 top fives.

Best ever?

That would be Stewart, who won three times and finished fourth in 1999, both rookie records. He totaled 4,774 points in 34 events, two fewer than Johnson (4,600) and Newman (4,593). Stewart had six top fives, 21 top 10s and just one DNF.

NO WORRIES, MON: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was strong early but finished 21st after the engine in his No. 8 Chevrolet lost a cylinder. He was 11th in the standings, 53 points behind Ricky Rudd and one position shy of a place on the stage at the banquet next month in New York. "That's about the coolest bad day we ever had," said Earnhardt, who led 48 of the first 75 laps. "It's hard to be disappointed." After the race, Earnhardt left for vacation in Jamaica.

RATINGS: NBC recorded an 18 percent jump in overnight ratings from last year's finale. The Ford 400 earned a 4.5 rating and nine share, the highest-rated overnight in the four years of the Homestead-Miami event, according to Nielsen Media Research. Last year's race drew an overnight rating of 3.8 and an eight share.