Saturday, January 22, 2022

Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to driver’s seat for Daytona Next Gen test, rules out return to NASCAR Cup Series

Once, long before testing became much more regulated and much less frequent, winter testing at the Daytona International Speedway used to be the first major sign of the coming of the Daytona 500 and the season beyond it. With the debut of NASCAR’s Next Gen car, winter testing at Daytona made its return on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it featured another prominent blast from the past alongside the future of the NASCAR Cup Series.

Among the drivers who made their way to a multi-organization test at Daytona this week was none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr., who returned to the speedway central to his outstanding career as the driver of one of two cars brought by Hendrick Motorsports. With Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Alex Bowman all racing at the Chili Bowl for midget sprint cars in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Earnhardt drove Hendrick’s No. 5 Chevrolet alongside William Byron’s No. 24.

Earnhardt participated in single-car runs while also mixing it up in multi-car sessions, as drivers tried out the draft and gave themselves a first impression of what pack racing would look like in the Next Gen car. It was an opportunity that Earnhardt, who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame next week, had lobbied for in order to remain current and informed as part of his work as a broadcaster.

However, Earnhardt emphatically ruled out any chance of his test session being a precursor to a return to the Cup Series. Although he has raced once annually in the Xfinity Series since 2018, Earnhardt retired from full-time racing at the end of the 2017 season after dealing with issues stemming from concussions later in his career.

“I’m old. 47 years old. Take a guy like William Byron, he’s young, he’s a risk-taker. And I’m done taking risks,” Earnhardt said Wednesday. “I’ve got two little girls that I love being around, and I put my wife through a lot to race the half of my career that she was with me. She put everything in her world on pause for eight or ten 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 racetrack that a young guy like William Byron is willing to do.

“… I think once you get to a certain age, if you’re not willing to go out there and put it all on the line, I don’t think you need to be competing. So I don’t know if I really have an instinct anymore. … But this has been fun.”

Earnhardt’s cameo appearance was one of the highlights of the two days of testing, which also featured a number of full-time Cup Series drivers as well as others like accomplished open-wheel racer and Daytona 500 hopeful Jacques Villeneuve. During testing, NASCAR finalized the the aerodynamic rules package for superspeedways, which will feature an engine output of 510 horsepower and a seven-inch rear spoiler.

While varying strategies between single-car runs and drafting affected lap times, Ford flexed its muscle on the speed chart throughout both days. Rookie Harrison Burton was fastest in practice sessions on both day one and two, and was joined at the top of the day one speed chart by fellow first-year driver Austin Cindric.

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