Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s feelings toward this week’s two-day test at Phoenix Raceway were different from past NASCAR tests.
While traveling to the track in Avondale, Arizona, from the NASCAR-themed cruise that stopped in Key West, Florida, Earnhardt couldn’t contain his excitement in texts to friends and team members.
“I don’t know why, but I’m just freaking pumped up for this,” Earnhardt said Tuesday, recalling the general theme of those text messages during a press conference. “When you’re racing every single week for 20 years and you’re testing here and there it gets kind of boring, no lie.”
For the second time since a concussion forced him out of the car last July, Earnhardt climbed back into his No. 88 Chevrolet to prepare for the 2017 season. He last drove a car in December at Darlington Raceway in order to receive clearance to drive again.
“My guys were excited this morning when we walked into the hauler,” Earnhardt said. “You miss the camaraderie and the friendships I have on my road crew. I think they missed me. That makes you feel good. They seem excited that we’re working together and back together.”
Earnhardt, driving a No. 88 car with sponsor logos but no paint, was the first driver out on the 1-mile track. He would return to the garage for an extended period of time to fix a “little hiccup” when his brakes caught fire.
“We got underway and got to trying some stuff that we had on our list,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve got a really long list. (Crew chief) Greg (Ives) and those guys are motoring right through it. We’ve seen that the car has really good speed.
“I like the way the car feels. It’s been a fun day. Didn’t really take any time to get acclimated or adjusted to anything. There’s a couple of small new things with the cockpit or the dash, little things like that. It’s funny how things continue to change, technology on the car continues to change. As far as driving the car I felt comfortable out there.”
It was the first time Earnhardt has been on a track with other cars since he finished 13th at Kentucky Speedway on July 9. His recovery from a concussion forced him to miss the final 18 races of the year.
Earnhardt has three wins at Phoenix, including his last Cup Series victory in November 2015. The 14-time most popular driver shared his thoughts on the renovation project Phoenix announced Monday. The $178 million project will include moving the start-finish to the dogleg on the backstretch.
“I think it will be really interesting to have the restart while we’re in the turns,” Earnhardt said. “Imagine if you’re 20th and middle of a pack and trying to get a good restart while you’re in a corner. It’s going to be interesting to throttle up out of the turn for a restart. It’s going to be guys all over the place going through the dogleg because on restarts you’re going to have guys that accelerate better than others, guys in the right lane, wrong lane. It’s going to be chaos going through the dogleg. It will be some action.”
Earnhardt and the rest of the drivers testing will be back at the track on Wednesday. Every Cup Series team will return to Phoenix for the March 19 Camping World 500.