DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Oct. 29, 2007) -- The colors were familiar -- red and white -- but the address completely new Monday as Dale Earnhardt Jr. began the prelude of his transition to Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt, who joins Hendrick following...
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Oct. 29, 2007) -- The colors were familiar -- red and white -- but the address completely new Monday as Dale Earnhardt Jr. began the prelude of his transition to Hendrick Motorsports.
Earnhardt, who joins Hendrick following the 2007 season, returned along with 46 other NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers to Atlanta Motor Speedway on Monday for a two-day test of NASCAR's "new car," which will compete fulltime in 2008.
This test -- the last of seven NASCAR-sanctioned tests this season -- is the first full-scale session for the new car at a 1.5-mile track, so Earnhardt was researching not only his new team, but the "new car."
"We're just sort of driving the cars, making sure nothing scared me, making sure there are no big problems, anything like that," he said during a lunch-break visit to Atlanta's infield media center. "So the cars drive really good and very comfortable. One's got a seat that I've been running in for a long time. The other's got a new carbon fiber seat. We're trying that out, getting used to that, getting the bugs out of that."
Earnhardt is driving the No. 5 Chevrolet during this week's test. Both test cars carry a spare, red and white paint scheme that echo his current car -- the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Inc.
He announced during the summer he'll leave DEI -- where he began his series career in 2000 -- for Hendrick in 2008. Other than a few laps in the No. 5 this spring at Texas Motor Speedway, where he stepped in for current driver Kyle Busch, this week's session marks Earnhardt's Hendrick baptism.
"I think the theory and the method that Hendrick takes in putting their geometry together and putting this front suspension -- how the front suspension's assembled -- makes the car steer smoother," he said.
"That's the way the 5 car felt at Texas. It was quite a bit different than my car at Texas. It's a little bit the same here."
Although the car and crew members are different, the crew chief is not. Earnhardt's longtime crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., made the Hendrick move with him, and is overseeing this week's work.
"I'm trying to be the bridge between Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Junior," Eury Jr. said Monday. "Because we've got a lot of work to do."
Part of Monday's schedule involved greeting team owner Rick Hendrick, who returned to the track less than 24 hours after one of Earnhardt's future teammates, reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) won Sunday's event at Atlanta. Another future teammate, Casey Mears (No. 25 National Guard/GMAC Chevrolet), also is testing this week with his future crew chief, Alan Gustafson, currently Kyle Busch's crew chief (Busch, who moves to Joe Gibbs Racing in '08, also is testing with his new team this week).
"I'm excited to watch Tony, Jr. work with the new guys," Earnhardt said. "I'm excited to see the expressions on their face; their mannerisms; their attitude about the whole thing. Working with Alan and Casey is going to be a lot of fun. Two good guys with great attitudes. Real easy to talk to. Real easy to go up to and ask questions."
Eury, who will rejoin Earnhardt atop the pit box in '08, said early indications point to Johnson's cars and setups being similar to those he and Earnhardt favor.
"They're probably the closest one to him, so that's a good start," Eury said. "We can feed off that."
ATLANTA THE FINAL '07 TEST FOR NASCAR'S "NEW CAR"
This week's test is the fourth this season dedicated to the new car (previous car-specific tests took place at Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway).
Teams are phasing in the new car by running it in 16 of 36 scheduled events this year, and the last of those 16 will be Nov. 11 at Phoenix International Raceway.
On Monday, former NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champion Bobby Labonte (No. Cheerios Spoonful of Stories Dodge) said the close competition fostered by the new car also is its biggest puzzle.
"The biggest challenge we have today, yesterday -- we'll have tomorrow, probably, too -- is the fact that all cars are really close," said Labonte during his Monday media-center visit. "When you're first, you can run a certain speed. When you're 25th, you pretty much run that speed, too. You might run close to the same speed, so if you're running close to the same speed, it's hard to pass. Usually it's a little slower. We'll see if that changes or not."
Regardless of what teams learn during this week's two-day test, Labonte added that some mystery will remain. The series' first race at a 1.5-mile track will be March 2, 2008 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"Until we get out there on the racetrack, 43 race cars, throw the green flag in front of 150,000 people, you don't really know what you've got," he said.
SERIES DIRECTOR JOHN DARBY PLEASED WITH TESTING PROGRESS
The seventh and final series test of the '07 season is serving as an on-track laboratory for teams, who will bank information for future tests and races.
That's just the intent, says NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Director John Darby.
"This test is more for the benefit of the teams," he said Monday afternoon. "We've done a tremendous amount of testing already on mile-and-a-half facilities as we developed the car. Since the birth of the car, if you will, at Bristol this spring, these types of tests are more to track-tune the cars just the same as they have with NASCAR race cars all through the years.
"I think that shows in the fact there are no changes here. There are no splitter adjustments or wicker adjustment or any of those types of things. This is more of an actual team test for all of the teams to bring their race cars here and get the most performance that they can out of them."
What: NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Testing.
Where: Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Track Layout: 1.54-mile oval.
When: Monday, Oct. 29 and Tuesday, Oct. 30.
Times: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. ET both days.
Who: More than 45 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series teams.