Junior finally gets to play with new toys

Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets ready to test his new Hendrick Motorsports car he will drive next season at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets ready to test his new Hendrick Motorsports car he will drive next season at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

HAMPTON, Ga. -- No choirs sang. There was no trumpet fanfare.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. tested with his new team for the first time Monday at 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, driving a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet as a two-day test for the car of tomorrow opened.

If things are to work as planned, the knowledge gained about how the car will work on intermediate tracks will be an important first step.

Should Earnhardt Jr. find himself battling for a championship one year from now, the way future teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are this year, perhaps the anniversary of this test will hold some significance.

For now, it's just a test.

"We're just sort of driving the cars, making sure nothing scared me, making sure there are no big problems," Earnhardt Jr. said during the mid-day break.

He said he was excited to see Tony Eury Jr., his crew chief who left Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Hendrick after the Oct. 7 race at Talladega, Ala., to start working on next year. He said he was excited to see the new guys they'll be working with, mostly guys who've been on Casey Mears' No. 25 Cup team. Earnhardt Jr. said it's like the first day at school, trying to learn everyone's names and faces.

He also sounded tired. Had he lost sleep because he was too excited about Monday?

"I'm sore," he said. "Hungry and sore."

Lunch would take care of the hunger. Sore was another issue. He pounded the wall after having a wheel come off his No. 8 Chevrolet on a green-white-checkered restart during Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500 and banged his foot on the pedals. Earnhardt Jr. was happy his neck wasn't sore; he did come out of the nasty-looking crash with a headache.

Earnhardt Jr. dealt all day with a wheel working loose, working toward the front with a car that at times was as fast as anything on the track. Even though he said it had been acting "weird" before the final restart, he'd had a couple of people look at it and convinced himself things would be OK. He was wrong.

"I was disappointed for being ignorant enough to say it would stay on," Earnhardt Jr. said. "They tell you when you are a rookie that if you have a vibration you come to the pits immediately. Never try to drive through it. Never try to fake it or hold it together.

"I should have done that. I was bull-headed. I was frustrated. I thought we could steal a third-place finish there. And it cost me a good finish."

Earnhardt Jr. has three more races at DEI and said he knows he'd "regret" not finishing as strong as he could with the team he's been with since the beginning of his NASCAR career.

He said he saw the No. 8 car in the garage.

"I don't know who's driving it today," he said.

Regan Smith was.

But that wasn't the point.

The point was who wasn't.