|Is Junior ready to win it all?|
“With the way we ran last year, getting a real sense that we were starting to compete at the level as a team that had the opportunity to win the championship, that felt really good,” said Earnhardt today. “It got really exciting.
“I think we have an opportunity,” he said. “Our time is now. We have a chance, if we can just find some more pieces and keep improving. We have steadily gotten better over the last couple of years (and) if we can continue to do that, keep applying ourselves, keep working and not get complacent about certain things, then we can be one of those teams in Homestead with a shot at it. I really believe that.”
Earnhardt said he has taken a different approach to preseason testing this season than in year’s past, becoming more involved in what is being done to his race car.
“You don’t really have to pay attention to what they are putting on the car, what they change,” he admitted. “If you don’t ask, rarely will a crew chief include you in that conversation. They will do whatever they are doing to the car and tell you to go try again.
“If I do it that way, I get really bored and have a hard time getting through the day. What I like to do, and it takes pretty little effort, is just plug into what they are doing. I get out of the car, asked what they changed, why they changed it, why they think that is going to be better, what’s next, why they think that is going to work. I try to really plug into the kind of technical things they are doing to the car. That helps me get to clicking. The day goes by fast when you are plugged in like that.”
Earnhardt said he looks forward to doing a more testing before the season begins next month at Daytona International Speedway.
“Our opportunities to test (have been) limited at this point,” he said. “We will obviously be at Charlotte next week with everybody else, and then we will have some opportunities after that to go to Nashville and Pikes Peak. We probably won’t go to Walt Disney World due to the rising costs and being able to acquire the race track, (but) we will go to Nashville… two or three times before we end up going to Las Vegas or Phoenix.
“We need to learn as much as we can learn,” said Earnhardt. “We have got a lot of rule changes in the cars. A lot of things are different, so we need to find where our package needs to be and get a good comfortable idea of where to start when we go to the different tracks.”
NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver also said he is confident in his team’s ability to adapt to the new Gen-6 race car quickly.
“I think that being with Hendrick is going to be a real advantage,” he said. “I’m not really that worried about it. I just like to be at the race track working. I think `momentum’ means you keep plugging away and you keep working. For us to sit around and hope that when we show up in Vegas, we are going to have plenty of time to figure things out… that is just a pipe dream. You have got to go to work. You have to test and put in the time to be better. You’ve got to go to the race track.”
Earnhardt also said he is happy with the overall direction of the sport, something he has been critical of in the past.
“It’s hard to come up with something I would change (or) something I would do differently,” he said. “I’m pretty happy with how things have been. I feel like that the sport is in a good healthy place. We have a good opportunity to grow. With this car, we have a chance to do something great and make a big impact. I think all the pieces are there.
“We have made a lot of changes that were hurdles and speed bumps, but double file restarts and a lot of the changes that have happened in the last several years have really improved the sport. I think the racing is as exciting as it has been in a long time. It always is changing and it always will, but I think we have improved it.”
Earnhardt also said he feels no lingering effects from the two concussions he suffered late last season; injuries that sidelined him for two weeks and eliminated him from title contention.
“I feel really good,” he said. “It was good to get in the car at the end of the year and be able to run a couple of races and get any kind of doubts or questions about yourself or your recovery out of the way. I feel really good down here. I feel good, ready to go. I’m glad I did it the way I did (and) I think it gave me a good opportunity to get better faster and come back sharp.
He predicted that NASCAR’s new Sprint Cup race car will “be really similar to the old cars at Daytona. They have a splitter (and) they have relatively the same package in the back. There is a lot less downforce, so I don’t know what that is going to do (or) how the cars may handle. We might be able to get cars moving around and guys getting loose, having to work on getting the cars tied into the race track, which would be good.
“What made Daytona a lot of fun was when the surface was really slick and you had to work on the handling of the car. I’m excited to be able to do that again. The track surface is aging, but it’s still relatively in good shape as far as grip level goes. The tires are really bullet proof (and) don’t really fall off or wear out that much. I expect the cars to look similar to what we saw in drafting here in the past.”