DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he was eager to jump in for NASCAR Cup Series testing this week at Daytona International Speedway, so much that he pinged a handful of teams — Richard Childress Racing and Spire among others — hoping for seat time. He said a half-dozen texts went to Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ VP of Competition, who finally bit, clearing the way for him to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet during the preseason sessions.
Earnhardt reflected Wednesday on his time back behind the wheel of the Cup Series’ new Next Gen car that will debut this season, gaining valuable knowledge that should help him become a more informed broadcaster for NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage. The 47-year-old retired from full-time Cup Series competition after the 2017 season and has kept his recreational racing to one Xfinity Series event each year since.
Earnhardt scuttled any speculation that this week’s return to the Cup Series garage might lead to more, say perhaps a Daytona 500 one-off.
“No impact,” said Earnhardt, asked whether the test sessions rekindled a competitive Cup Series fire. “You know, I think that it’s a long story, but I’m old, 47 years old, and take a guy like William Byron and he’s young, he’s a risk taker, and I’m done taking risks. You know, I’ve got two little girls that I love being around and I put my wife through a lot to race, you know, half of my career that she was with me. She put everything in her role on pause for eight or 10 years while we did all that, and I just don’t know that at 47 years old I would be willing to take the necessary risks out on the race track that a young guy like William Byron would be willing to do.”
Byron is 24 years old and his teammate for the week, his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy parked alongside his No. 5 in the outer reaches of the Cup Series garage. His other teammates — Cup Series champion Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott — are all spending time driving midget cars at the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa this week, another factor that opened the door for Earnhardt’s appearance.
Admittedly, Earnhardt had reservations about the sometimes humdrum pace of testing at points in his career. The opportunity, though, to drive the Cup Series’ new vehicle was too enticing, providing him with first-hand experience about the car’s characteristics that he can convey to a TV audience.
“They’ve got William to really lean on, but I was happy to have the two days,” Earnhardt said. “Chad didn’t think I wanted to do the two days because he remembers me as somebody that didn’t really like testing. But having not done in a long time, I was happy to help them out. It’s really helped me out. I’m taking a ton of notes and learning so much about the car that I think it’s really good. When I talk to the drivers now, I think I can understand what they’re talking about, right? When I can ask them about what’s challenging about this car and this track, even if we’re talking about another race track, I think I can understand when he says this is what I feel, I can really kind of tap into this experience and really know what he’s talking about. I think that’ll be helpful.”
Earnhardt was originally scheduled only for single-car runs during the Daytona test, but with crew chief Alan Gustafson’s prodding, he found himself in the midst of multi-car packs both days. He previously drove the car at Bowman Gray Stadium’s quarter-mile last fall, a far different experience than the 2.5-mile Daytona oval, but he found some of the same truths in the car’s stronger brakes, the steering precision and overall feel.
Earnhardt has already made plans for his lone Xfinity Series race of 2022, which will come at Martinsville Speedway on April 8. In terms of the Cup Series, he says that he’d welcome another chance to tag along for testing, either at a short track or an intermediate-sized venue to add to his Next Gen notes.
“But that’s about all the interest I have in driving these cars. I do love racing in the Xfinity Series and that’s a little … it’s a completely different vibe there,” Earnhardt says. “The whole culture and everything’s way different, but so I don’t feel that same concern about that sort of instinctual risk-taking stuff.
“This is, the Cup Series is elite. You don’t just show up and think you’re just going to go out there and compete. It’d be like, you know, an old retired football player just showing up for an NFL game and thinking he’s gonna go out there and compete with those guys. You’d get destroyed. I remember when (Jamie) McMurray came back and ran a couple years ago for Spire, he got out and he told me, he said, ‘man, I don’t remember it being that hard.’ It’s tough. Not an easy thing.”