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

Long before testing became much more regulated and much less frequent, winter testing at the Daytona International Speedway was the first big sign of the arrival of the Daytona 500 and the season after. With the debut of NASCAR’s Next Gen car, winter testing in Daytona returned Tuesday and Wednesday and saw another prominent blast from the past alongside the future of the NASCAR Cup Series.

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

Earnhardt competed in single-car runs and also mixed it into multi-car sessions as drivers tested the design and gave themselves a first impression of what pack racing would look like in the Next Gen car. It was an opportunity where Earnhardt, who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame next week, had lobbied to stay current and informed as part of his work as a broadcaster.

Earnhardt, however, emphatically ruled out any chance that his test session could be a harbinger of a return to the Cup Series. Although he has raced in the Xfinity Series once a year since 2018, Earnhardt retired from racing full-time at the end of the 2017 season after having problems with concussions later in his career.

“I’m old. 47 years old. Take a man like William Byron, he’s young, he’s taking risks. And I’m done taking risks,” Earnhardt said on Wednesday:. “I have two little girls that I love to be around, and I put a lot of effort into my wife to race half of my career that she was with me. She put everything in her world on hiatus for eight or ten years while we And I just don’t know if at 47 I would be willing to take the necessary risks on the track 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 and risk everything, I don’t think you should compete. So I don’t know if I really have an instinct more. … But this was fun.”

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

Switching strategies between single-car runs and setting up lap times, Ford flexed his muscles on the speed map during both days. Rookie Harrison Burton was fastest in practice sessions on both day one and two, and was joined by fellow freshman driver Austin Cindric at the top of the day one speed card.

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