'True test for Junior'

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- Of all the changes the team of Dale Earnhardt Jr. will unveil at Daytona International Speedway at this Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, none will be as profound as a new attitude.

 

The race team is new, along with the car number and sponsor. But that's all work of lawyers and accountants. The most important part of the move from his father's race team to Hendrick Motorsports is the new perspective that came with it.

"There is a peace of mind," Earnhardt said. "I think one of the changes, like I said, has been not being the son of the boss anymore. When I first started, you could get away with saying things and being quoted certain ways and be able to get away with it working for my daddy. I wouldn't be able to do that now."

Earnhardt had more latitude than others because of his family ties at Dale Earnhardt Inc. He also had greater pressure to follow in his father's footsteps. Now that he's teammates with four-time champion Jeff Gordon and two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt is more at ease than ever before.

For the first time in his career, it's only about racing. And for an Earnhardt, that's always been the easiest part.

"I'm extremely impressed with his abilities behind the wheel," Johnson said. "I've always been around him and raced with him, but you just don't know what's going through someone's mind when you're not a teammate."

Johnson and Gordon finished one-two in the Chase for the Championship last year, and they separated themselves from everyone else, combining to win 16 of 36 races. Earnhardt will bring a new kind of attention to a race team that's used to success -- and tranquility.

But so far, Earnhardt has proven to be the consummate teammate.

"He puts a smile on everybody's face when he gets in there and starts talking about things and the race car," Johnson said. "He just has a great sense of humor and keeps everybody lighthearted and laughing.

"He's not making it up. I mean, you can see a conviction in his eyes how he's describing it. That's what he's feeling. That's something I didn't see or know of before."

Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson will be in the all-star race Saturday night for pole winners from the 2007 season.

The 70-lap feature doesn't count toward the Sprint Cup Series championship, but it is a preview of what to expect in the Feb. 17 Daytona 500.

In 29 previous all-star races, five drivers have won the shootout and the 500, including Gordon in 1997.

Gordon said the pressure will be different, yet intense, at Hendrick. The organization is considered the best in the business. He said it may have been easier for Earnhardt to grow old in his father's company, especially since any success will have to come at the expense of his new teammates.

"Now he goes to a team that's won a lot of championships, won back-to-back championships," Gordon said. "So now it's like, OK, this is the true test for Junior."

For now, Earnhardt understands his place in the Hendrick pecking order. More importantly, he's willing to work his way up the ladder.

"I've always talked about trying to get credibility and people to respect you and whatnot, and by putting yourself out there on the limb here," he said.

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.

 

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