Earnhardt Jr. already has high expectations and confidence for 2013By Kelly Crandall
The 2013 season hasn’t officially begun yet, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. feels he’s already off to a good start. Testing last week in Charlotte, the Hendrick Motorsports driver praised NASCAR’s new sixth-generation car.
The two-day test was the first chance for drivers to become familiar with their new machines. Earnhardt Jr., who has made it known that he never liked the COT cars, was immediately impressed, as well as comfortable in his new surroundings. A little surprising for a driver many are quick to point out, doesn’t normally have positive feedback about a car.
“The cars drive really well. I know everybody is probably real curious about how we think the racing is going to go,” said Earnhardt Jr. “It’s real early in the game, this is the first time I’ve driven the cars at all. I’m really impressed. I really like the balance of the car, the downforce seems to be relatively good. The car has driven well for us today.”
Earnhardt Jr. noted that his team was going to do a lot of fine tuning during the test, looking to learn what the likes and dislikes are of the car. He also hopes that before the season starts they’ll be able to test more, with the next opportunity being at Charlotte in early January. The first time around, however, had him very encouraged.
“I think that the car has really awesome potential. I like it already leaps and bounds beyond the COT or the old car we ran,” he said. “This car really gives me a lot of sensations that are similar to the old car that we ran four years ago or however long ago it was.
“It’s still early. I’m trying not to get too excited or form too big of an opinion or too solid an opinion of the car. We have got a lot of things to learn about it.”
The good news for Earnhardt Jr. and his fans, much of his success has come with the old style car, or pre-COT years, winning 17 races between his debut in 2000 until 2008. Earnhardt Jr. never adapted well to the COT and was never much of a factor since it’s debut back in select races in 2007 and it’s full-time start in 2008, winning only twice.
Now though, his optimism is back. Coming off a season in which he looked to be an early championship contender, the hope is to enter 2013 and continue that success. He ran top three in points the early part of 2012, even took the point lead during the summer stretch and had high expectations for the Chase.
Things, however, quickly went downhill and his season was over after a crash in Talladega that produced his second concussion in six weeks. But during testing at Charlotte, both Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte noted that they believe they’ll be just as strong in the upcoming year. While acknowledging that in order for them to take that next step and be championship material, they need a fast start and fast cars.
“You would like to believe in momentum and things like that. In this sport you can be a hero one week and a zero the next,” Earnhardt Jr. noted. “There is so much competition out there. There are a lot of variables too with the new car, completely new; the sport is going to be revolutionized again with this car. There are a lot of things that are unknowns, but I’m with a great company that sort of does really well under those kinds of circumstances.
“When there are a lot of unknown variables they [HMS] are really good at figuring those variables out and figuring out how to be competitive given a certain working space they can kind of figure out faster than most people.”
Calling himself fortunate in that regard, Earnhardt Jr. says his confidence will be as high as ever entering 2013. Confident in his team, the cars they’ll be putting on the track and the way they’ll drive.
Yet, in hoping to again make the Chase, Earnhardt Jr.’s goal is to get off to a fast start in the first 10 races. Last year he had eight top 10 finishes in the first 10 races, setting him up on his Chase run. With all the changes the teams will be facing in the new year, whichever ones can achieve that, whichever ones gather the most data, test and have the work ethic, will be in good shape.
“I think the first 10 races of the season are the most important races as far as making the Chase, putting down a good foundation of points,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
“If you end up after those first 10 races around eighth or ninth or tenth, that kind of seems to be where you end up fighting all year long. Just try to stay in the Chase. It’s a real tough mental battle and it wears on the team, it wears on the drivers that are in those positions. It’s nice to get out there and get up front early and stay there. That is our outlook and I think that we are in a good position.”