Earnhardt tests Hendrick car
HAMPTON, Ga. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. zipped up the white racing suit, this one with a shoe company’s name plastered across his chest instead of a popular beer, and climbed into a car that made him look even more out of place.
It was white instead of red. No. 5 was painted on the side instead of No. 8. The logo was for Hendrick Motorsports, not the team that bears the name of his late father.
Earnhardt gave an intriguing glimpse of what the very near future holds on Monday, taking the wheel of a new car with his new team for the first round of a two-day testing session at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Junior was tired from NASCAR’s grueling schedule and sore from a nasty crash the previous day, when a hard lick in the closing laps cost him a chance to go for the win in a Nextel Cup race on this same 1.5-mile oval.
Still, Earnhardt got down to work with Hendrick Motorsports, which will be his home beginning in 2008 following a nasty split from Dale Earnhardt Inc. and its owner, stepmother Teresa Earnhardt, who remains his boss for three more races.
“It’s like going to a new school and trying to make new friends,” Earnhardt said. “It’s hard to make friends. It’s hard to make relationships when you’re starting over with a new group of guys. I have a great rapport with all the guys on the team I’m currently with. I’m going through the challenge of building respect and trust with a whole new group of guys.”
At least he heard a familiar voice over the radio. Tony Eury Jr., his cousin and one-time crew chief at DEI, has already made the move to Hendrick, getting a head start on next season.
“It’s really cool to be back with him,” Eury said. “I’m trying to be the bridge between Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Jr. so they can understand him quicker. We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure it’s game on when February comes.”
Since announcing his move to Hendrick, Earnhardt has walked a balancing act between his new team and soon-to-be-former operation. He conceded that it was a little strange to head to a different hauler on Monday, leaving Regan Smith to drive Junior’s No. 8 in testing.
“A couple of guys from the 8 car came over to see me today and asked me if I was all right and how things were going with the 5 car,” Earnhardt said. “They’re looking out for me. We have work left to do there, and we’re going to do it.”
Earnhardt had endured a difficult season, on and off the track. A series of blown engines scuttled his chances of qualifying for NASCAR’s 10-race playoff, leaving him as both a lame duck and a guy who has no chance of winning the Nextel Cup.
But he’ll be moving to the powerful Hendrick team, which already has the top two contenders in the title race, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Casey Mears will actually take over Kyle Busch’s No. 5 car, while Earnhardt switched to No. 88 so he can retain some link to his past. Negotiations to bring the single 8 with him from DEI fell through.
“He hates what he’s having to leave over there,” Eury said. “On the other hand, I think if you said Dale Jr. could start the 2008 season tomorrow, he would be happy. He’s sad and happy, but I think he’s pretty much ready to go.”
This wasn’t Earnhardt’s debut behind the wheel of a Hendrick machine. That came in April, when he jumped into Busch’s No. 5 car at Texas after a crash that took out both drivers.
Busch’s team repaired his car but couldn’t find the driver, who apparently left the track thinking his day was done. So Earnhardt jumped in for the final nine laps, a precursor to his announcement in June that he was moving to Hendrick in 2008 – to take Busch’s job.
But this was Junior’s official debut with his new team, an occasion that Hendrick marked by having him drive a specially painted car bearing the company’s original name, All-Star Racing, its former white and red paint scheme and a throwback sponsor, “City Chevrolet.”
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