Remember the scene from Talladega Nights when Ricky Bobby returns to testing after a long layoff and is far slower than expected?
While that was exaggerated for a movie, there were legitimate questions about whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. could jump back into a car and be fast right away again after missing half of last season with a concussion.
Even Earnhardt had been anxious to find out.
“I’m just a little nervous about if there will be any kind of learning curve,” he said. “Sometimes you see guys, no matter the type of the sport, who are away for awhile and have to adjust since they’ve taken time off. And other guys come back like they haven’t missed a day. I hope there’s no rust to shake off.”
But after the Phoenix Raceway test this week, we now know there’s no rust.
Of the thousands of laps run by 16 drivers at the test, Earnhardt had the three fastest laps of the two-day event. And the drivers testing included eight-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick was there, as was November winner Joey Logano and the emerging Kyle Larson, who finished third in that most recent race.
Earnhardt is a driver fueled by confidence or hampered by a lack of it. That’s how he’s always been, and it’s not going to change now at age 42. So the fact he could come to Phoenix and show his speed is just fine? Well, you’d have to think that’s a big deal for him.
Now, that doesn’t mean he’s going to win the championship this season. You can’t look at test results — with no tech inspection and teams on different agendas — and project success.
But at least we know Earnhardt hasn’t lost anything. Had he gone out and posted uncomfortably slow lap times or been toward the bottom of the speed charts, that could have caused him to question himself. And it would have been awkward to watch.
Instead, the opposite happened. His No. 88 car still had speed — remember, it almost won the November race after Alex Bowman led 194 laps — and Earnhardt was fast right along with it.
Everyone in NASCAR should be able to breathe a sigh of relief about that, because the last thing anyone wanted was for Earnhardt to come back and pull a Ricky Bobby — especially the running around in the underwear part.