NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: A New Era Begins for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

At 9:16 on a Monday morning, Dale Earnhardt Jr. rolled onto the track at Atlanta Motor Speedway, tucked behind the wheel of a No. 5 Chevrolet Impala. As the car climbed up to speed, what was a Twilight Zone-type moment faded away, as those observing came back down to earth and recognized the enormity of what had come to pass. One lap after another clicked off on the scoreboard, and reality hit home; one of the most-anticipated moves in recent Silly Season history was now unfolding right before their eyes.

Indeed, Junior was out there driving a Nextel Cup car prepared not by DEI – the organization founded by his father – but by Hendrick Motorsports, the organization that’s the foundation of his future. As if that wasn’t strange enough to swallow, the car he was driving was painted specifically just for this test. That paint scheme – designed to symbolize the first racecar ever fielded in the Cup Series by Junior’s new boss, Rick Hendrick – was further indication of just how significant this day had become, not just to the organization as a whole but to the media circus that surrounded it. Yet, the moving diecast served its purpose, in a way; it proved symbolic of a new beginning for Earnhardt, a man who seemed busy taking the first steps toward the next five years of driving for the most powerful team in the sport today.

Months from now, Monday’s test will have served as nothing more than the first step in a long process, one that will prove whether the organization or the driver was the reason the No. 8 team has failed to sit at the head table in New York for the past seven seasons. Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt’s long time crew chief who left DEI after the Talladega race, spent the last three weeks preparing the cars that Dale Jr. drove on Monday in Atlanta. When asked about the differences between DEI and Hendrick, Eury noted that both the process and the teams are basically the same – with one major difference. According to him, Hendrick Motorsports goes more in-depth with their engineering, delving deeper into the minutiae that makes the cars faster and better. That subtle attention to detail will most certainly give Earnhardt a different feel to his cars when they hit the track next year; but whether that feel will result in race wins and a championship, only time will tell.

That time clock officially started ticking Monday. During the morning test session, Kyle Busch – whose ride Earnhardt is assuming for Hendrick next season – was the fastest car on the track, driving the No. 18 M&M’s Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing. Earnhardt wasn’t far behind – winding up seventh and 15th on the speed charts – while his current teammate at DEI, Martin Truex Jr., was fifth and eighth. During the afternoon session, Earnhardt was eighth and 13th on the speed chart, while Busch was third and Truex, Jr. was fifth, respectively.

What can be made of these results? Nothing, really. Testing is not about who is the fastest – certainly not when it is the first time the Car of Tomorrow takes to a mile-and-a-half racetrack, with a chassis that could be significantly revised in the offseason. No, this test is about feeling the cars out and making sure that the drivers are comfortable with the car’s handling and setup. However, it can say a little bit about the organization and the driver when the speed changes are observed. Busch slowed down two mph from the first session to the second; Truex dropped one mph, while Earnhardt only lost eight tenths. It speaks to the team and the driver that, when conditions warmed up and handling became more of an issue, Earnhardt’s team was able to be more consistent than others who are making headlines.

The attention drawn to this test does speak volumes about the immense amount of pressure which will fall on Earnhardt’s shoulders next year, a consequence of this signing that really isn’t all that fair. Even with the Hendrick name backing his effort, he’s still going to drive for a new organization, in a car where several other drivers have gone and not succeeded – the old No. 25. Since the advent of the Chase, all three of Hendrick’s other teams have combined to battle for the championship nine times, while Earnhardt’s new ride has yet to finish higher than 15th in points. Getting used to new surroundings and a new methodology for doing things will also take some time and will, without a doubt causing some struggles for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver early in the season.

Still, Earnhardt will certainly have his fair share of opportunities to run up front. Known as an outstanding short-track racer, there is no question that he is one of the best on plate tracks; combine that with the quality equipment that Hendrick is capable of putting together, and the chance for a victory – especially in one of the four restrictor-plate races – will certainly be strong for Earnhardt next year.

But the overriding theme above all should be patience. As far as I’m concerned, I see the real test coming in 2009, when Earnhardt has had a year to adjust. That’s when the time to put up or shut up will be at hand; to pour the pressure on now, or even next year, appears to be a little premature.

Right or wrong, this is certainly one of the most widely covered tests in the history of NASCAR, a very public look into the initial steps in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career at HMS. And rest assured, they’re very small steps. One must walk before they can run; but, judging by the speeds that were posted by Earnhardt on Monday, this new combination seems to be on some pretty stable legs so far.

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