By Mike Mulhern
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the rest of the NASCAR gang battled high winds and sporadic rain Monday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in the first round of a crucial week of testing for the car-of-tomorrow, NASCAR’s new winged machine, which has not yet been battle-tested on the stock car tour’s numerous intermediate-sized tracks.
Two days of Sprint Cup testing at Bruton Smith’s 1-1/2-mile track on the northern end of Las Vegas Blvd. and then two days of Cup testing at the France family’s two-mile California track three hours down I-15 in Fontana.
And make no mistake – this week of testing is all about ‘the car.’ Earnhardt, the fastest overall in speed during Daytona testing, says NASCAR’s new stocker “is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: That’s just going to take a while for us to ‘science’ out and understand.
“And we ain’t really had a whole lot of laps because of the weather.”
One key to getting the new car around these two fast tracks is figuring out how to get as much downforce as possible on the nose, to help the car turn. The new car simply doesn’t turn very well, so crew chiefs are pushing the limits. The new front-bumper, called a ‘splitter,’ bottoms out, making the car a handful.
“When the splitter gets on the ground (bottoms out), the car goes up the track,” Earnhardt frets. “So you got to get that splitter off the ground…but as close as possible, to get the maximum downforce.
“It’s a real fine line trying to adjust those two things. It’s hard to have one without losing the other.”
The reason NASCAR has added this strange new bumper to the car is to keep teams from running expensive, soft springs.
But, like many things NASCAR does, solving one problem only presents another.
“The other car (last year’s model) traveled,” Earnhardt said, referring to the nose dropping down to the asphalt, with the softer springs, to make the car more aerodynamic and turn better at high speeds. At California Speedway, for example, these cars routinely hit 208 mph going into the first turn.
“Now you got that splitter—it don’t go nowhere; you can’t grind it off.
“You need to get the car traveled down (to the pavement) as much as you want…but then the splitter touches the ground and it’s terrible. Blows the whole corner. So it’s a challenge.”
At least Earnhardt has cousin Tony Eury Jr. back as crew chief. Eury, whose family has been part of the Earnhardt clan for decades, moved from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports last fall, to pave the way for Earnhardt at his new job.
While the Earnhardt-Eury combination is a familiar one, the Earnhardt-Hendrick relationship is still being formed. And Hendrick seems positively awed with Earnhardt’s dedication to making this thing work. Hendrick says Earnhardt has deferred to his new senior teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at every opportunity….which has impressed Gordon.
“It’s pretty new,” Earnhardt says of his new haunts. “It’s nice being on the same playing field. It’s definitely evened things out for me, amongst all my co-workers and the people. We’re all trying to work together.
“I’m just taking it in. I’m listening to what they’re saying, trying to find out what kind of drivers they are and how serious they are about their work, trying to learn how to be around them…and what they want from me, what they’d like to know from me.
“They know there’s no favoritism…those kind of concerns, or curiosities, about what perks come along with being the son of the boss (as at DEI). You just got to really mind your own business….and try to keep the people you’re working with happy.
“I was doing that before (at DEI); there wasn’t any problem, I didn’t really have a complex about it. But now it’s just different. It’s a different feeling. And I’m okay with it.”
Earnhardt certainly knows why to defer to Gordon: “The first time I met Jeff I was at North Wilkesboro practicing for a Late Model race; we happened to be there the same weekend as the Cup cars.
“Dad walked up and introduced me to Jeff, who was sitting on pit wall. That wasn’t really the first time I’d met him; Dad introduced me to him when he was in the Busch series (in 1991, when Earnhardt was just 15).
“But he introduced me to him again at North Wilkesboro. Dad never introduced me to people. So for him to be doing that, I figured there was something important going on, some reason I needed to know this guy.
“Jeff was winning championships when I was just getting started. He’s had a little bit to do with guys coming into the sport at the age they’re coming in now (very young)—to see him challenging, winning races, beating guys five or 10 years older.
“I thought I should already have been in the series…I was a late-bloomer, got a late start. I was upset with myself for not pushing myself to be in the sport quicker….instead of goofing off so much.”
But there’s no mistake about how hard Earnhardt has been pushing himself these past two years. It may be painful to have gone so long without a win – his last was at Richmond in May 2006— but his maturity through it all has been quite clear.
Now comes Daytona….with all the emotional baggage – the good and the bad – that it carries for every Earnhardt. Dale Sr. finally won the 500 in 1998, after so many heartbreaks. Dale Jr. got his 500 win in 2004.
“I get asked all the time to explain what it feels like to win that race…and you struggle really hard,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. says. “That’s probably one of the hardest questions to answer. Because there aren’t words to describe that feeling.
“I’ve got an average vocabulary when it comes to Mooresville; I feel I do pretty good. But it is hard to try to tell someone that hasn’t ever been there what it feels like…because it’s just the craziest things….
“It’s a great, great feeling, and you ride that for days and days.
“I’ve won races and by the next Sunday you practiced, qualified, things have happened to where you’re back to zero; the emotion and the high is gone. You’re proud, but the high is gone.
“But when we won the Daytona 500, I carried that feeling for months.
“So when I won the race, the emotion for me was ‘I got that done. Now I can move on to the next thing.’
“I enjoyed it. I’m proud of it. I brag about it. Winning the Daytona 500 is a tough thing to do, and I’m proud to be on that list.
“But, I tell you, I didn’t think I was going to win it. And I #### sure didn’t think I was going to win it in my fifth try. That’s crazy.
“It’s so hard to win. There’s so many great drivers that never won it—that deserve it.
“The race itself—the first Daytona 500 I saw was the first one I ran in. I was in the fourth row, and it blew my mind in the qualifying race because we run fourth.
“So when I started that race, it was the first one I ever saw…from the race car itself. That was intimidating.”
His father’s many trials at Daytona worked on Earnhardt over the years. “It scared me to death I would be racing for 20 years still trying to get the win,” he concedes now. “How many times will you have the opportunity—to be in good cars, to be able to do it?
“I worried I would lose all the Daytona 500s in the cars I should have won it in….That’s kind of how it went for him.
“The 1990 Daytona 500—when he cut that tire on the backstretch (the last lap, while leading), that was one of the hardest things to understand. I was a sophomore in high school; old enough to understand. I just couldn’t believe that.
“I know there’s worse things that can happen to you. People that deal with worse. People that have it hard.
“But—dang, man!—I wanted that race so bad.
“That was such a rough way to go.
“I didn’t know what kind of person he was going to be when he got home—whether my daddy was going to be different the rest of his life.
“But he dealt with it. And that made me admire him more.
“That made me hopefully a better person just experiencing that, being that close to him and watching him go through it.”
But while the build-up to Daytona is considerable, Earnhardt realizes it’s not the be-all, end-all for the year: “The season is very long, and it will get here when it gets here,” he says patiently. “I don’t rush the season to get here.
“I rushed it when I was a rookie, and the first couple years. I ended up burning out. Just got so amped up and excited about the season starting I was just coming there with guns a-blazing.
“Sort of like that drive to Vegas: You’re all pumped up at the start, then halfway through you’re losing steam.
“So I found a way to keep a real steady pace throughout the year—take it one week at a time, one day at a time.
“So it can get here when it gets here. You guys know what a grind it is.
“You really just have to take it all on the chin when it shows up.”