Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
After one of the best seasons of his career, and that streak-breaking win at Michigan, finally, plus a run, albeit too short, at the championship, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks fit and hungry and ready to pick back up where he left off, before that pair of concussions turned 2012 upside down.
And while stock car rivals may be nervous and worried about what to expect the first few weeks of the season, with this new race car, plus a charge to make racing more exciting, Earnhardt and his teammates at Rick Hendrick's are just bursting with confidence.
In fact the air at Hendrick Motorsports, over across the street from Charlotte Motor Speedway, was almost filled with cockiness.
Chevy's chief NASCAR engineer Pat Suhy Tuesday night, during Day Two the annual pre-season media tour, had quickly dismissed a series of questions some teams have raised about the new season and the still not fully vetted new race cars. Suhy, who helped lead a GM design team in the two-year development of his company's new 2013 race car, the SS, was quite upbeat about the shape of the sport in the coming weeks. He said he saw no reason for the nervousness in other stock car camps.
And that optimism was a big theme Wednesday during the Day Three stop at Hendrick's.
Earnhardt says the new cars are much better in handling and aero design, and he says that means drivers should be able to move around on the track and find different grooves, and not be so tied down to having to run in the wake of the leader.
Best proof of that, one way or the other, should come at Las Vegas in the March 10th 400.
Rick Hendrick and one of his new 2013s. His men plan to have 28 stockers race ready for the start of the season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Another point to consider here, in wondering just how aggressive these drivers might want to be early in the season, is the remarkable comeback to make the chase that Kasey Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis made, after such a problem-plagued start to 2012. Maybe that shows that drivers don't necessarily have to play it conservatively during the first 26 races for fear of making too many mistakes that might keep them out of the playoffs....at least if you're driving for Hendrick.
Earnhardt performed solidly nearly every week last season...until he hit the wall in that tire test at Kansas in late August. That, plus a second concussion at Talladega, ended his title bid.
So one of the early season questions is how will Earnhardt open 2013.
He appears fired up, as are his teammates.
"I can't tell you how happy I am to get away from the COT," Earnhardt said.
"I didn't think the COT was a very good fit for me. I struggled with the car, to drive the car at all. You'd drive the car half a car length into the corner and it might get pissed off at you. It was just an annoying thing to deal with, getting the car through the corner every lap.
"You have to drive it in just this little window of grip. And I have a tendency to overdrive, get it in the corner too hard.
"I think this new car is going suit me in some areas.
"Now we've been testing at Charlotte in 30 degree weather, and that made it real grippy, so you can't really take much from that test.
"But we're going to run Phoenix with a new tire, and I'm happy about that because I haven't done well on the old tire. Once we run Phoenix and Las Vegas we'll really start to understand that car.
"This car will have the ability to run multi-grooves better. That's something the COT struggled with. And if you can run different grooves, you can find clean air, if you're stuck back in traffic."
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 2012, a COT, and he says he's glad to say goodbye (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Earnhardt's Cup career has been up and down. He came in as a young hotshot, winning two Busch titles, and having a legend on his team. In 2004 he had a standout season, won a bunch of races, and made a charge at the championship.
Earnhardt still kicks himself for that mistake at Atlanta that cost him: "Racing and getting run over...I was not even thinking -- the moments before I wound up in the fence on the backstretch -- about the championship. It was the closing laps of a race, and I was thinking about winning the race. And I got in over my head and got knocked out.
"I was just too young. We had a really good shot at it, and my inexperience cost us. I didn't know what it took...didn't use my head."
Last season Earnhardt had his best title shot since then.
Now can he mount another championship run in 2013?
Not quite black tie formal...but then Junior isn't that kind of guy anyway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The Hendrick group certainly looks like the 800-pound gorilla in the NASCAR garage. All four men are title contenders.
"Daytona is its own creature," Doug Duchardt, one of Hendrick's top engineers, says. "We'll go to Phoenix and Vegas and California and see how we're doing, and work from there.
"The goal is closer racing, and more passes, and a product that all the fans want to watch. Heck, we all want that.
"And you can't script stuff. These guys are driving hard from the word go; there is no taking it easy in the middle of the race, because track position is so important. If someone can make a pass, they will.
"Back in the 1990s were drivers taking more chances, or was it that the fields weren't as deep with competitive cars? You had maybe 10 or 12 guys who could compete for the win; today we've got 20 solid teams, and that makes it tough."
There are a lot of pieces to this 2013 car puzzle, and one of them is NASCAR's push to get more mechanical grip in the cars. "The rear suspension rules, with more camber, give the cars more mechanical grip....but it will take time for us with the car to get going and see. And NASCAR has told us if they need to make tweaks they will...so we're emotionally ready for that," Duchardt said with a laugh.
Some teams are complaining about limited testing, unproductive testing.
But not the Hendrick guys. And they seem comfortable with NASCAR opening some of the early season tracks a day early, for at-track testing, instead of having some full-blown tests earlier.
"I think we'll get it dialed fairly quickly," Duchardt says. "We saw that at Charlotte (last week); we only had half a day, but things were quickly evolving. I think we'll be okay. For us, the two Charlotte tests were both beneficial....and we'll do a little more testing before the season starts."
One thing rivals worry about is that Hendrick's operation is so big and powerful that it can throw more people at any situation than any other team.
"There is the logistics of building the cars and having the cars ready; and the second part is the new opportunities with the new car and new rules and how do you optimize things," Duchardt says. "I'm very proud of the work our guys have done.
"We're taking 12 race cars to Daytona, three for each team. We're taking eight cars to Phoenix. And we're taking eight cars to Las Vegas. That's 28 race cars.
"That's a lot of work. That's about half our fleet.
"Most other big teams are in the same position -- if you're in the Sprint Unlimited, you have to take three cars to Daytona.
"The other side (new opportunities), we're all in the same boat. As racers, opportunities, that's the fun part.
"For the fans, all this should be interesting to watch."
Tires? With more downforce in the 2013s, with a different rear end setup, with new aerodynamics, Goodyear engineers may have their hands full.
Duchardt insists he doesn't anticipate any major issues: "I haven't seen anything with this car in the wind tunnel that would cause any huge amount of concern."
So, bottom line for Duchardt, worried? "You're always nervous at the start of the season, because you really don't know how well you've done your homework till the season starts. Once you get through Daytona -- which seems like it takes a month -- and finally land at Phoenix, you can say 'Okay, where are we at?'
"Everyone wants to start well...but you have to stop and remind yourself this is a marathon, not a sprint. So you just have to be ready to handle adversity, if it's in front of you."