Testing Next Gen ‘completely new animal’ intrigues Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. never had a big taste for testing as a full-time NASCAR competitor. But, just as intrigued by the mystery of the Next Gen car as many others in the garage, Earnhardt has been trying to find ways to get involved in tests, and managed to do so with Hendrick Motorsports for two days this week at Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt is driving the No. 5 Chevrolet at the famed speedway where he experienced so much success as a driver. It is the second time he’s been able to get behind the wheel of the new car, previously doing so for a few laps at Bowman Gray Stadium in October.

It’s all in the name of education. Earnhardt wants to feel comfortable talking about the car during the second half of the year in the NBC Sports broadcast booth. Getting a first-hand feel helps Earnhardt understand the car’s differences and connect with active drivers when they describe what it’s doing.

“The biggest thing about this car that’s different to me is the rack and pinion steering and how that feels, how fast and quick it is, and that to me makes this car a completely new animal and totally foreign,” Earnhardt said Wednesday morning before the 9 a.m. session began. “That feel in the steering, you wouldn’t think that’d be so different. It turns the wheels left and right. How could that feel any different? But it’s quite different and will take some time getting used to.”

The steering rack has been an adjustment for drivers. So much so, it’s needed work through the early offseason tests NASCAR held as driver feedback called for improvements. One issue was a vibration that resulted in officials needing to spend an additional day at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a handful of cars to make sure it was fixed before the next organizational test.

Earnhardt admitted the feel of the steering is “too quick” for him after what he ran with throughout his career. But on the flip side, he thinks it’ll be great for muscling around all the road courses.

“The brakes are another thing,” Earnhardt continued. “When I went to Bowman Gray ran, I only ran a few laps, and I probably should have spent a lot more time in the car. I regret not running a lot more laps. I never got even close to overdriving the car into the corner. The brakes stop the car way quicker.”

Something to watch, particularly at Daytona, is how drivers will brake coming to pit road under green flag conditions. Earnhardt described how drivers would start braking almost immediately off the banking transition off Turn 4 when pulling to the left and getting pointed at pit road. But with the brakes on the Next Gen car being so much better, Earnhardt thinks that distance will be cut in half before drivers have to start slowing down.

“The braking power is enormous,” he said. “So, at a place like Martinsville, you’re going to break way later. You’re not going to get into the brake pedal until much later in the corner, and it’s going to do all the stopping right in a very short period of time. It’s completely different.”

For Earnhardt, all of this is taking time to learn since he’s not actively driving or testing the car. The rest of the field, he said, will pick up on it rather quickly.

Even at Daytona, it’s been different for Earnhardt. Having retired before NASCAR started using a much bigger spoiler because of the low horsepower aero package, Earnhardt wasn’t used to the amount of drag on the car when he made his first runs on Tuesday. And so he didn’t feel the car doing the same things it once did for him or producing the runs in the draft as he expected.

Earnhardt is working alongside Hendrick driver William Byron this week, with whom he’s spoken a lot about the car. Byron has tested the car both in single-car tests held by NASCAR and now through the organization tests. Most of what Earnhardt and Byron have talked about is finding the line of not overdriving it and re-establishing a feel for the car.

“The right-rear tire with the shorter sidewall, there’s a lot less information you’re getting as a driver and the feel,” said Earnhardt. “There’s a lot less information that you’re understanding about the right-rear tire because that sidewall was sort of a sensor and the deflection in the sidewall. When they make it smaller, they have to make it stiffer and so that sidewall really doesn’t do a lot of moving around, and that would give you an understanding of how much grip you had in the right rear of the car, and you could kind of drive the car off the right rear tire, and I don’t think you can do that with this car.

“So, the driving styles for a lot of guys — some guys like to hang the right rear out and kind of be loose, and this car, I don’t know if they’ll get there. They’ll figure out how to set it up to race that way, but right out of the gate, it’s not easy to do. Trying to figure out how much grip you have in that right-rear tire, it’s almost like somebody unplugged that sensor.”

As testing with the Next Gen car continues, Earnhardt plans to remain close to teams to keep adding to his notebook.