Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – The Daytona International Speedway crowd got a double treat of sorts on Tuesday.
They got a chance to preview the new NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen cars before the Daytona 500 and a chance to watch one of the sport’s most popular drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., drive around one of his favorite tracks.
Earnhardt is filling in for newly-crowned NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet during the two-day Next Gen Test at the track. The 47-year-old two-time Daytona 500 winner is set to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame next weekend, but was eager to take this opportunity to try out the series’ new car.
“Just trying to learn everything we can,” Earnhardt said.
“It’s been fun and a great learning experience,” said Earnhardt, who said he had originally planned to be down in Florida for the test as an observer – expecting to gain some knowledge to help in his role as a race broadcaster for NBC Sports.
“But the chance to be behind the wheel is even better,” he said. “I’m enjoying it. It’s been fun.”
DENNY HAMLIN’S WOES
With only about an hour and a half left in Tuesday’s Next Gen Test session, Hamlin pulled his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the Daytona garage and parked.
“We blew up,” Hamlin said. “It started getting a little weak at the end but overall I was pretty happy with how the car was handling and drafting. Overall, a good test.”
Despite the early exit, Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner and a perennial championship contender, put in a hard day’s effort at the high-speed office – leading laps in the mock race, drafting and looking solid in single car runs. Disappointed not to finish the two-day test, the team was at least encouraged by the work on Tuesday.
“I was pretty happy with it overall and not a lot I would change – not a lot I could change,” he added with a smile.