NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Rookie-of-the-Year Kasey Kahne and Richard Childress Racing (RCR) driver Jeff Burton gained a jump on the 2005 season and established Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson as the favorite to win the 2004 championship during a one-day test at Kentucky Speedway today.

Johnson has won four of the past five races in his No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Centers Chevrolet and enters the final race of the season 18 points behind series leader Kurt Busch and the No. 97 Smirnoff Ice/Sharpie Ford. Johnson's teammate and car owner is third in the standings with his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. Gordon trails Busch by 21 points. Fourth-place driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., trails Busch by 72 points and Mark Martin rounds out the list of contenders in fifth place. He trails Busch by 82 points.

Kahne, who clinched the rookie title at Darlington with his third straight fifth-place finish, tested a 2005 Dodge Charger for the first time and reflected on his first full NEXTEL Cup Series season in which he has garnered four pole awards, 13 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes through 35 starts. He begins the week 12th in the series standings.

"It's been a big learning curve for me, just racing every weekend at the different tracks," Kahne said. "It's not just learning about the cars and tracks, but the fans and the things you do as a NEXTEL Cup driver. I've enjoyed it a lot, but it will be nice when it's over in a couple of months and we can get rejuvenated for next year."

He added that his solid rookie results have raised expectations among his No. 9 Evernham Motorpsorts team.

"I definitely will have higher expectations and I think our whole team will," he said. "I will go in expecting to run in the top 10 more consistently, have more opportunities to win races, be in the top 10 at the end of the year and be able to run for the points championship. It's going to be tough again. Everybody gets better year after year. I'll be better as a driver and my team will be better as far as working with me." While looking forward to 2005, he hopes to finish this season by completing the "NASCAR Triple Crown" with his first NEXTEL Cup Series win. He earned his first NASCAR Busch Series win at Homestead-Miami last year and brought home a NASCAR Craftsman Truck victory in his first series start last week at Darlington in the No. 2 ASE Dodge.

"We tested there (Homestead) last week, learned some things and were pretty fast. I think we'll have a shot at winning and running up front," he said. "I'm going to drive the truck and Busch car there, so I'll have a full weekend to try to get another win or a couple wins."

Like others around the circuit, Kahne is quite interested to learn which driver will win the first NEXTEL Cup title. "It's going to be pretty exciting for the top three especially, and even for four and five," he said. "I'd have to say Jimmie Johnson has an edge, but it could be Jeff Gordon or Kurt Busch just as easy. These guys are all on top of their game right now. Jimmie is up front every single week and they tested well down there (Homestead). The No. 24 was good, too, so it'll be real interesting."

Burton, who improved from 20th to 16th in the NEXTEL Cup standings since transitioning from Roush Racing to RCR and the No. 30 AOL Chevrolet in late August, also took the first steps toward a strong 2005 start.

He will move from the No. 30 to No. 31 Cingular Wireless car next season, but keep his current crew in tact. The primary goal of today's test was beginning to gain a grasp on the 2005 NEXTEL Cup race package.

"There will be a lot of changes next year with new tires, spoiler rules and gear rules," Burton said. "We need to come out of the gate with a handle on those things. That's part of the reason we're here today, to try to learn as much as we can to get ready for next year. We want to get going quickly.

"We've been real consistent, but we need to find a little bit of speed. There have been races this season where we finished better than we should've and there have been a lot of races where we haven't finished as well as we should've. Last week, for example, we ran in the top six all day long and finished 13th because we had some things go bad for us at the end of the race. We're working well together, we understand we need to be better and the chemistry is good. This team has a lot to prove, I have a lot to prove, and we're out trying to get it done."

He also weighed in with his opinion of the first "Chase for the NEXTEL Cup" and its affect on the series.

"Going into the last race of the year, what else can you ask for?" he asked. "Three guys are within 24 points and there's no telling who's going to win or what's going to happen. I think the points system has made the series tougher and more competitive, especially coming down to the end of year. You have five guys with a mathematical chance to win the championship and three with a very, very good chance to the championship. Then, you have a tight point race everywhere else.

"I think it's what this sport needs. We need an opportunity to bring the casual race fan to the sport. The diehards are going to be there as long as it's good racing, but we need to give the casual fan a reason to watch. I think a good, tight points race and the build up to the tight points race will help do that. We've seen increased attendance and increased involvement with the media and fans this year. That's good for the sport long-term."

He initially hedged on predicting a 2004 champion, but leaned toward Johnson later in the conversation.

"I wouldn't go there in a million years," Burton said when first prompted for a prediction. "I said three weeks ago that the 24 and 48 were building momentum and had some personal reasons to go out and make some good things happen.

"The 48 is on a roll big time. The 97 looks to me like a boxer that's back on his heels a little bit, even though they've been leading the 15 rounds. They've run well, but have had a tremendous amount of luck. There have been about five races where they've been sitting sideways on the racetrack spun out and nobody's hit them. I'm sure they're looking at that wondering if this is just isn't their year. On the other hand, they might be looking at it as if this is their year because no one hit them.

"I don't know, but the 48 is going to be very tough to beat. They've been very good that type of track (Homestead). I wouldn't make a bet, but if you told me I had to bet against the 48 I'd be disappointed."

~ Kentucky Speedway ~