Dale Earnhardt Jr. Is Preparing for a Daytona 500 That Will Be ‘Interesting and Maybe a Little Messy’

Tony Romo doesn’t show up at NFL training camps to throw post patterns to Stefon Diggs, nor does John Smoltz throw batting practice to Mike Trout in spring training. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. just drove the Next Gen car in testing, and the two-time Daytona 500 champion is waving the caution flag.

Dale Earnhardt enjoyed a perk of his NASCAR television job

Dale Earnhardt Jr. walks in the garage area during the NASCAR Next Gen test at Daytona International Speedway on Jan. 12, 2022, in Daytona Beach, Florida. | James Gilbert/Getty Images

He keeps a hand in the Xfinity Series by driving one race per season, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t competed in the NASCAR Cup Series since 2017. However, Earnhardt spends half of each season doing analysis of races for NBC Sports, which keeps his head in the game.

This week, he tested a Next Gen car for Hendrick Motorsports at Daytona International Speedway, combining research for his TV job with support for his old boss. With three of his Hendrick Motorsports drivers in Tulsa this week for the Chili Bowl Nationals, Rick Hendrick decided he didn’t want to fly his guys back and forth for two days of Next Gen testing.

Instead, Hendrick and Jeff Gordon dialed up Earnhardt, who drove for HMS from 2008-17, scoring the final nine of his 26 Cup series victories. He took part in a mock sprint race on Tuesday along with drafting drills and single-car runs, and Earnhardt came away with more insight than he gathered from a test alongside Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer in October at the behest of NASCAR.

“I’m trying to learn about the car and taking in everything I can to help me in the booth (and) they’re trying to figure out how to make it go faster,” Earnhardt said, according to Motorsport.com. “So, when all those guys get in the car, it’s going to work for them and do what they need it to do in the (Daytona) 500.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 preview: ‘Interesting and maybe a little messy’

The differences between the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series cars and the Next Gen cars making their racing debut this month are well-documented. The new cars will have a different feel from track to track, ranging from half-mile ovals to superspeedways and road courses.

While testing at Daytona this week, Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted something at the superspeedway that hadn’t been as apparent at the tiny Bowman Gray Stadium in the fall. The rack and pinion steering is considerably more sensitive than the prior pitman-arm system. Earnhardt doesn’t think it will make a difference elsewhere, but Daytona and Talladega will require driver adjustments.

“It’s very surgical,” Earnhardt said, according to Jayski.com. “Somebody used that term yesterday and I think that’s a great way to describe it. Very delicate, very small movements of the steering wheel are going to give you the same reaction in the car that a big movement or a lot of movement in the wheel would have in the old car.

“All these guys that drove with manual steering box, you get muscle memory. And when your car gets loose, you got an idea, it’s instinctual how much you have to turn the wheel to correct that slide or catch the car. You know what to do. But you have to relearn all that with the rack and pinion. You can’t rely on that muscle memory or instinct, but some guys will to a fault and make those adjustments they did all those years and that could get interesting and maybe a little messy in the race.”

‘The Big One’ is always a concern when NASCAR visits Daytona

NASCAR has invited teams to test the Next Gen car at several tracks, with Charlotte Motor Speedway and Daytona being the most notable. Teams will travel to Phoenix Raceway in two weeks, and then most will start pointing to the Busch Clash, slated for Los Angeles the first weekend in February.

Smaller teams can bring just one car to testing, and the larger teams get two. That typically requires drivers to share seat time, meaning even less time to get a feel for Daytona. As an aside, Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t even send a car this week.

Speedweeks leading up to the Daytona 500 will undoubtedly allow drivers time to get acclimated to the Next Gen car’s steering. But Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s warning that “get interesting and maybe a little messy in the race” must be heeded. The 2.5-mile oval lends itself to racing in a pack. All it takes is one car getting loose to trigger chaos, often referred to as “The Big One.”

A year ago, that misfortune struck on lap 14 as Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman got turned and collected 16 cars, sending themselves, Ryan Newman, Erik Jones, and six others to the garage for the day. Two years before that, Matt DiBenedetto lost control on lap 190, and a total of 21 cars suffered damage. It was enough to end the day for about half of them, including Almirola and Martin Truex Jr.

Those are just the recent examples. Given Earnhardt’s evaluation of the Next Gen car on the Daytona 500, it feels like a given that the 2022 season opener will bring yet another major wreck.

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