- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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HAMPTON, Ga. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the garage at Atlanta Motor Speedway at 9:13 a.m. on Monday. Gone was the red Budweiser gear that has become synonymous with his image. In was a white driver's suit with a red adidas logo on the front, back and sleeves.
NASCAR's most popular driver cruised right past the No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. car he has driven since coming into the Nextel Cup Series eight years ago, straight for the first two garage stalls in which white No. 5 cars from Hendrick Motorsports were parked.
After a few moments to greet members of his new team, which included former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and three of his crew, Earnhardt climbed behind the wheel and headed for the track.
This actually was a break for an important Car of Tomorrow test on a 1.5-mile track, but because it coincided with the symbolic beginning of the Earnhardt era at HMS, the test took a back seat.
It was such a big deal that HMS owner Rick Hendrick, who goes to tests about as often as one of his four Cup cars finishes outside the top 10, made a cameo appearance to get a picture with Earnhardt beside the car painted like his first in 1984.
"He's a neat guy and I'm looking forward to getting started, and I think today is part of that getting started," Hendrick said.
Earnhardt, although a bit sore from the hard hit he took when the left rear wheel of his DEI car fell off on the green-white-checkered restart, a caution-provoking mishap that ensured Johnson's win Sunday, also was excited.
"Everybody's got great attitudes," he said. "Everybody's got winning attitudes, winning on their mind. It's contagious. Makes you feel good. Makes you get excited."
Earnhardt's first trips around AMS only added to the excitement. He liked that the car handled better and turned a lot more smoothly than those he is accustomed to. He liked hearing Eury's familiar voice, albeit they've only been separated for a couple of races, back in his ear.
"Just getting to know everybody, remembering everybody, everybody's names, getting to understand and learn their personalities, the ins and outs of every member of the team, that's going to be the only challenge," Earnhardt said.
"It's like going to a new school, making new friends. It's hard to make new friends. It's hard to build relationships. I had such a great rapport and great relationship with all the guys on my team I'm currently with, and to have to go through the challenge of that and building that respect and trust with a whole new group's gonna be tough."
But Earnhardt can't wait for the challenge. As sad as he is to leave the company his father built, he can't wait until he's climbing in his new car -- which will be the No. 88 -- all the time.
"He hates what he's having to leave over there," Eury said. "But on the other hand, if you could say, 'Dale Jr., we're going to start the 2008 season tomorrow,' he'd be happy."
Earnhardt can't wait to be in equipment that won't break down like his has. Sunday's incident, the result of bad threads on the studs of the hub, was the latest in a frustrating season in which he has blown seven engines.
"I'm pretty gun-shy right now to hop in anything," Earnhardt said, jokingly. "I've got confidence in Rick amd his employees to build a safe car. I feel the same way about my guys at DEI. They're building a great car.
"We're just snakebit. If I could point fingers, I would. I really can't say it's anybody's fault."
Earnhardt also can't wait to get into equipment that has helped Gordon and Johnson win a combined 14 races and put them in position to win the title.
Gordon, who finished seventh Sunday, has a nine-point lead over Johnson with three events remaining. Both drivers and their crews are skipping this two-day test to focus on the title.
It's that dedication, more than the cars, that has Earnhardt so excited.
"The cars, equipment, pieces of all that are the same," he said. "It's just maybe Hendrick does a better job at being organized with it. They have more success."
Eury said there is a better overall understanding of the cars at HMS than at DEI.
"There's a lot more engineering," he said. "They dig deeper into it, and they can give you answers."
Earnhardt didn't take long to get comfortable in his new ride. Using one of his old seats in one car and a new carbon fiber seat in the other, he was seventh-fastest in the morning test.
Kyle Busch, who normally is in the No. 5, was fastest in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing car that he will drive next season.
There were so many drivers and crew chiefs in different roles that one almost needed a scorecard to keep count.
J.J. Yeley took a break from the No. 18 to test the No. 96 of Hall of Fame Racing car. Scott Riggs, normally in the No. 10 at Gillett Evernham Motorsports, was in the No. 70 at Haas CNC Racing. Patrick Carpentier was in the No. 10.
Regan Smith, who has split time in the No. 01 this season, was in the No. 8 even though he will drive the 01 in 2008. Dario Franchitti was in the No. 40 that David Stremme will vacate after this season.
Everybody's got great attitudes. Everybody's got winning attitudes, winning on their mind. It's contagious. Makes you feel good. Makes you get excited."
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But as usual, Earnhardt got the most attention. Photographers and television cameramen followed his every move. Crew members couldn't walk past his car without turning their heads.
"A couple of the guys from the 8 car have already come over and seen me, asked if I was all right, asked about how things were going with the 5 car," Earnhardt said. "They've got a great attitude. They look out for me."
Earnhardt couldn't help but notice the 8 car when he walked past it, either.
"It's a unique situation to see it down in the garage," he said, not aware that Smith was driving it. "I'm sure the car is going to be a rocket ship. It was [Sunday]."
Earnhardt said all the right things about his former team. He wants to leave next month with dignity.
But he can't wait to get to work full time with his new team. And the team members can't wait for him to start working full time, although the mood was somewhat subdued after a long weekend.
"Nobody is just doing cartwheels across the garage," Earnhardt said. "We're all sort of down to business right now. We're all trying to figure out what the car needs, just feeling each other out and getting to know each other before we start goofing off and having a good time."
The packs of fans in red No. 8 gear that stayed an extra day in Atlanta to watch this somewhat historic transition for their favorite driver hope that isn't a long time.
"It's been wild, how much attention this has got and how hard some of it was and how much fun some of it was," Earnhardt said. "As exciting as it is, I don't ever want to do it again.
"Hopefully, we'll have a great time at Rick's and he'll keep me as long as I want to drive."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What ordinarily would have been an important Car of Tomorrow test at a 1.5-mile oval proved much more significant as Dale Earnhardt Jr. took his first real turn in a Hendrick Motorsports car, writes David Newton.