DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Speedweeks consensus is Dale Earnhardt Jr. has the fastest car entering Sunday’s Daytona 500.
NASCAR’s 12-time most popular driver also might have the Sprint Cup Series’ fastest voice in his ear, helping him maximize every move his No. 88 Chevrolet makes in the draft at Daytona International Speedway.
Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson got a taste of the relationship between Earnhardt and spotter T.J. Majors when tandem drafting was prevalent at Daytona four years ago, putting two drivers on one spotter’s channel.
“I had the opportunity when we used to do the tandem drafting to hear T.J. when I’d get hooked up with (Earnhardt),” Johnson said after he and Earnhardt completed a Hendrick Motorsports’ sweep of Thursday’s qualifying races. “Not in a bad way, but he doesn’t shut up. It’s nonstop. That’s what you need.
“Junior and T.J. have found great rhythm with that. T.J. gives a lot of great information.”
Earnhardt was vocal in giving Majors much of the credit for helping him fend off Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano in Thursday’s race – just as he offered effusive thanks to his spotter after winning last year’s Great American Race.
And if Earnhardt becomes the first repeat winner of the Daytona 500 in 20 years (Sterling Marlin in 1994-95 was the last), it’s likely Majors will play a significant role – even though Earnhardt’s car is so strong.
“I don’t like to give T.J. too many compliments,” Earnhardt said with a laugh about Majors, who has been his spotter for more than seven years. “He’s so good. … Michigan, these other racetracks we go to, I don’t even have to look in the mirror. I might go 60 laps without glancing at the mirror because the information is so good. I can almost see the image in my mind what’s happening behind me because of how good T.J. is at describing it.
“He’s learned over the years how to understand when a run’s happening half a lap before it forms. He can see things sort of forming and understand this lane’s going to be coming, give me that information. So I’m ready before it’s happening. I’m not making a nasty block late in the game. I’m actually preemptive and moving in front of the line that’s going to be coming.”
Majors said their longtime friendship allows him to call Earnhardt’s race while focusing almost exclusively on what’s behind the No. 88, providing vital information on which drivers are approaching with a head of steam.
“We know what each other is thinking before it happens,” Majors told NBC Sports. “I feel he’s comfortable with me telling him where to go. I’ll tell him to turn right, I’ll see him turn right. I think that’s huge, man.”
The focus is on keeping rivals at least half a car-length behind Earnardt’s car. Once that buffer is broached, the trailing car shoots forward, Majors said.
“He’s obviously really good already, and if you give him a little bit of what he needs, it just makes it pretty easy,” said Majors, who briefly drove a Late Model for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports. “I don’t really watch him out front that much, I just watch what’s going on behind him, because that’s what is going to keep him out there. I don’t really care what he’s doing.
“It’s coming from behind him. I just work on that and try to give him the info to do it and make our car about 25 feet wide. … I just think this whole package works great with us and his driving style. It’s just really a lot of fun.”
With NASCAR’s rules remaining static at restrictor-plate tracks this season, it’s allowed for drivers to grow wiser about the ploys used to sling-shot through the draft to gain positions as a trailing car.
“All the tricks and little things that we work in the car, everybody in the field knows about now,” Johnson said. “Having this rules package stay the way it has, it doesn’t matter who you race with, they know the sweet spots to pull someone back, set up a pass (and) make things happen. Yeah, I would definitely agree with that.
“But leading’s probably the hardest thing to do. Your spotter has to be on his game, letting you know where the energy is coming from, what lane is moving. Then you have to block and defend.”
It’s placed a premium on side-drafting – pulling alongside a car to build momentum – which Earnhardt has mastered.
Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon admitted he still was figuring it out after finishing second in Thursday’s qualifier.
“I started on the front row on restarts three times, and I don’t think any one of them I came out with the lead,” Gordon said with a smile. “Whatever I’m doing is not the right thing (smiling).
“Yeah, it’s tough. You want that car pushing you from behind. But the back end is moving all over the place when they do that. … Every decision is very crucial. You can go backward so quickly.”
But it rarely happens to Earnhardt, who has been tight with Majors for more than a decade after befriending him through racing video games.
“It’s enjoyable to have that trust,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve worked with other spotters in the past that are good spotters, but I also know some of the guys up there that he’s working with. I know he’s miles better than half of them up there. I wouldn’t want to be working with anybody else.”