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Team is on fast track at Indy

Hendrick Motorsports drivers Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt post three of the five best laps in practice for Sunday's Allstate 400.

July 26, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Hendrick Motorsports drivers staked an early claim Friday for this year's NASCAR race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted three of the five fastest laps in opening practice for Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, widely considered the second biggest race in the Sprint Cup Series behind the Daytona 500.

But just behind them was Kyle Busch, the sport's hottest driver this year with seven wins in 19 races and a comfortable lead in the Cup points standings.

Busch, a Joe Gibbs Racing driver hoping to win his first Brickyard 400 in his fourth start, is considered a favorite again Sunday.

"If we could win here, it would be pretty special," said Busch, 23. "It's still been a great year."

Johnson, the reigning series champion, won here in 2006.

And Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, also is the only four-time winner of the Brickyard 400. "We'd love to get our fifth win here," Gordon said.

But Gordon, still searching for his first victory this season, said, "I'm not looking at setting a record right now as much as I'm looking at just wanting to win."

The fastest lap in opening practice was turned in by Elliott Sadler, driving a Dodge prepared by Gillett Evernham Motorsports. Sadler averaged 179.190 mph around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis oval.

Johnson led the second practice at 180.047 mph, followed by Gordon, Ryan Newman and Sadler teammate Kasey Kahne. Qualifying to set the race's 43-car grid is today.

The practices were a key shakeout for the teams because it was the first time that the whole Cup field had driven NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow at Indianapolis.

The car, designed mainly for increased driver safety, became mandatory this season after being used only at certain tracks in 2007.

"With the COT, it's hard to say that we can run up front for sure," said Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the Indianapolis 500 open-wheel race here in 2000 and finished second behind winner Tony Stewart in his first Brickyard 400 a year ago.

"I think our expectations should be to keep improving during the race," Montoya said.

But other drivers came away from Friday's practice with confidence, including Earnhardt, even though he bobbled on the track during the second practice to drop to 10th fastest in the session.

"I couldn't be happier with what I've got under the hood," Earnhardt said.

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Stewart confirmed the poorly kept secret that he will drive the No. 14 Chevrolet in the Cup series next year for his new two-car team Stewart-Haas Racing.

The car, with primary sponsorship from Office Depot and Old Spice, was unveiled by Stewart at a news conference. The number 14 was used by racing legend A.J. Foyt, who "has always been my all-time hero," Stewart said.

The team's second car will carry No. 4 -- Stewart's number when he raced go-karts as a youngster -- but a driver and sponsorship for that car haven't yet been announced.

Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, currently drives the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Gibbs.

Members of his new team "have been joking around that we have a can that we have to put $10 in every time someone says Home Depot instead of Office Depot," Stewart said.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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SUNDAY'S RACE

Allstate 400 at the Brickyard

11 a.m., ESPN

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