DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — Dale Earnhardt Jr. spent the early part of the week turning laps at Daytona International Speedway in front of over 10,000 fans.
No, it wasn’t exactly a return to NASCAR Preseason Thunder, but it was the closest thing to it in quite some time as the Cup Series barrels toward a new season and a new era.
In just a few short weeks, the Next Gen car will make its debut — first at the L.A. Coliseum for the Busch Clash, and then at Daytona.
Junior, helping out Hendrick Motorsports, was one of nearly two dozen drivers in attendance this week testing out the new car, including single-car runs and multi-car drafting sessions.
And at 47 years old, that was as close to a Cup Series return as he wants to get — especially at a place like Daytona.
“I’m old,” Earnhardt Jr. said Wednesday morning before heading out for the second day of practice. “Take a guy like (Hendrick driver) William Byron, he’s young, he’s a risk-taker … I’m done taking risks. I got two little girls that I love being around, and I’ve put my wife through a lot.
“I just don’t know, at 47, that I’d be willing to take the risks out on the racetrack. I’ve always wondered, what happens to these guys when the performance sort of starts to nose over? I think a lot of it’s your risk assessment, and your willingness to put yourself in very dangerous situations. When I was out there (Tuesday) in the pack, watching those guys get a little crazy … I don’t know that I really have that instinct anymore.”
What’s different with the Next Gen car?
Maybe in the old car he would, but this new machine, Junior said, is an entirely new animal.
The Next Gen car was set to debut last season, but it was pushed a year due to the pandemic. Some of the noticeable changes — and there are plenty — include bigger tires, one lug-nut, a bigger rear spoiler and, Junior said, much more drag.
“I didn’t feel like, when I was out there in the pack, that I was able to develop a run in the traditional sense,” he added. “You’re kinda just there. I think the only real way that I saw guys making anything happen was to put people three-wide, and I think that’s how this Daytona 500 is going to look.
“You’ll see side-by-side, double-file, until guys are tired of doing that, and then they’re gonna be three-wide.”
Along with Junior, several other big names were at the track for the two-day test, including Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin.
John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Racing Innovation, said he was pleased with what he saw during Tuesday’s first test, especially compared to the initial Daytona Next Gen test back in September.
“We were fighting a lot of heat issues (then), driver steering issues with cars pulling one way or the other and not sucking up very well,” he said. “I give a lot of credit to our engineers … they went to work and I think what we saw today was pretty good racing.”
Probably a little too much racing, Logano said.
“We were all out there pushing and shoving each other pretty hard,” he added. “I don’t know why we do that, but when it’s racecars and a racetrack, it turns into a race. It was intense, to say the least. I was white-knuckling it a few times.”
So was Blaney, Logano’s Penske teammate who sat out Tuesday’s session but got behind the wheel most of the day Wednesday.
The 28-year-old said there would be plenty to still learn ahead of next month’s race, but at the end of the day, he expects the same chaos we’ve all grown accustomed to.
“If it’s the last two laps of the Daytona 500 and I’m in contention, I don’t really care what happens to me,” Blaney told NASCAR.com after turning his first laps.
Yep. Junior probably made the right call.
“The Cup Series is for the elite,” he said. “You don’t just show up and think you’re gonna go out there and compete. It would be like an old retired football player just showing up to a game thinking he’s gonna go out and compete with those guys … he’d get destroyed.
“I watched them in that pack-racing in front of me and I was like, ‘Man, I can’t believe I used to do that.’ “
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Dale Earnhardt Jr. tests at Daytona but don’t expect NASCAR Cup return