Earnhardt Jr turns first laps for Hendrick

Dale Earnhardt Jr. began a new chapter in his racing career on Monday, strapping into a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the first time. He and a host of other drivers took part in a NASCAR-sanctioned Car of Tomorrow test at Atlanta Motor ...

Dale Earnhardt Jr. began a new chapter in his racing career on Monday, strapping into a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the first time. He and a host of other drivers took part in a NASCAR-sanctioned Car of Tomorrow test at Atlanta Motor Speedway, preparing for the 2008 season.

Earnhardt drove the No. 5 car in the two-day test, decked out in a red and white paint scheme. It was reminiscent to team owner Rick Hendrick's first car entered in the series over 20 years ago. The No. 88, which Earnhardt will campaign in 2008, was unavailable for use by the Hendrick team for the test.

"We're just sort of driving the cars, making sure nothing scared me, making sure there are no big problems, anything like that," Earnhardt said Monday afternoon during a break in testing.

After only turning a few laps in the morning, Earnhardt instantly noticed a difference between the Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s CoTs.

"The [Hendrick] car drives about the same, but the steering is smoother," he explained. "I think the theory and the method that Hendrick takes in putting their geometry together and putting this front suspension -- how the front suspension is assembled, makes the car steer smoother."

Earnhardt was reunited with long-time crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who made the move from DEI to Hendrick three weeks ago to get a jump start on the '08 season. Junior also got to work with future teammate Casey Mears and his crew chief Alan Gustafson during the test.

"I'm excited to watch Tony, Jr. work with the new guys," said Earnhardt. "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."

With three races still remaining this year, Earnhardt, as well as others like Kyle Busch and JJ Yeley, are working with their 2008 teams in the test. But in just a few days, they'll be back in their 2007 rides to finish out the season. The 17-time series winner said he's focused on doing the best job possible with both teams.

"We have work left to do and we'll do it," Earnhardt stated. "When I'm asked to come over here prematurely to do this type of thing, we'll work really hard, try to accomplish something, and leave here with a good feeling about what we got.

"It's important to me that we keep working hard. I would regret if we end up not doing that. I feel like these [Hendrick] guys are very welcoming and excited. But I think it really won't sink in until we go to Speedweeks testing."

Earnhardt was still feeling the effects of Sunday's violent accident at Atlanta. The No. 8 DEI Chevrolet suffered from a persistent loose left rear wheel throughout the race. Earnhardt gambled on staying out during a late-race caution, moving him up to third. It turned out to be the wrong call. Just a few laps after the restart, the wheel came loose, sending the car hard into the Turn 1 wall.

"I should have [pitted], he said. "I was frustrated. We hadn't got [good finishes] this year. I thought we could steal a third place there. But it cost me a good spot and a good finish. I was just disappointed that I didn't do a better job."

After the heavy impact, Earnhardt was surprised that his neck was not sore. But he didn't come away unscathed. His leg was smashed into the clutch pedal on impact.

"When we hit [on the] driver's side, my pedal flew into the clutch and caught the top of my foot pretty good," he explained. "It shocked some of the muscles in there, so it cramped up all day long."

Despite the aches and pains, Junior was able to keep the pedal to the metal on Monday, clocking the 8th best time of the day at 30.057 sec (184.450 mph). Kyle Busch, who Earnhardt replaced at Hendrick, was in his new Joe Gibbs Racing ride. He posted the quickest on Monday, a 29.776 sec ( 186.190 mph).

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Casey Mears , Tony Eury Jr. , Kyle Busch
Teams Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing