Earnhardt making noise with strong test runs at Daytona, Vegas
It's still too early to tell exactly how good Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be in a Hendrick Motorsports race car, but early returns from test runs at Daytona and Vegas have been impressive, writes David Newton.
Updated: January 29, 2008, 9:08 PM ETBy David Newton | ESPN.com
LAS VEGAS -- On paper, Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't belong in the same league as Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.Gordon has four Sprint Cup championships and Johnson two. Earnhardt has none.Gordon has 81 Cup wins and Johnson 33. Earnhardt has 17, none in more than a year.Gordon has 234 top-5s and Johnson 86. Earnhardt has 76.But when it comes to popularity, Earnhardt is second to none. His merchandise sales are nearly double that of Gordon, who ranks second. His fan base is so large that every race is a home game if there were such a thing in NASCAR. But Earnhardt wants to be considered more than the most popular driver, which sometimes is embarrassing to acknowledge when he looks at the great talent around him at HMS. He wants to be considered one of the best drivers like Gordon and Johnson -- and his late father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, from who he inherited much of his popularity."That's why he made this move," said Gordon, referring to Earnhardt's switch from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to HMS. "That's why he made this huge decision at this point in his career and why he wanted to go to the best team he could. "That's why Rick Hendrick has a lot of pressure on him, as well as Junior, because he wants to prove to everybody that he's got the talent. None of us really know how talented he is until we see him in other equipment."It's still too early to tell how Eanrhardt will do with what most consider better equipment at HMS. But early returns from tests at Daytona International Speedway two weeks ago and at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Monday and Tuesday are good.
Earnhardt recorded speeds faster than Johnson, Gordon and Casey Mears at Daytona, albeit he went a week later when he had the benefit of their test data. He was consistently faster than all but Gordon at Las Vegas, the first gauge of the Car of Tomorrow on intermediate tracks.Gordon and Johnson both have been impressed, not so much by Earnhardt's speed as his personality and knowledge of the car."I'm extremely impressed with his abilities behind the wheel," said Johnson, the two-time defending champion. "I've always been around him and raced with him, but you just don't know what's going through someone's mind when you're not a teammate."
AP Photo/John RaouxA familiar sight: NASCAR's most popular driver signing autographs.
From a pure speed standpoint, Earnhardt was solid last season at DEI. Were it not for six blown engines he likely would have made the championship Chase with ease."So I don't think it's going to be a clear, defined, you know, moved to Hendrick and picked up 'X' amount of speed," Johnson said.But what is clear to Johnson is that Earnhardt is going to be an asset and a threat to keep him and Gordon out of Victory Lane. He's already seen that during debriefings at the tests."When he's describing what the car is doing, he has a very clear understanding of what the car is doing," Johnson said. "He can break down the corner, know what inputs are doing to the car. He knows how the car is talking back to him, the direction he wants to go in."He's not making it up. I mean, you can see a conviction in his eyes how he's describing it. That's what he's feeling. And that's what you need in our sport without data at the racetrack, the other modern tools that can be used. You need to be strong and have a good feel for the car and lead your team down that road to make it better, and he has that."Johnson also likes what he's seen from Earnhardt personally.
He puts a smile on everybody's face when he gets in there and starts talking about things and the race car. He just has a great sense of humor and keeps everybody lighthearted and laughing.
-- Jimmie Johnson
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