Column: Thankfully, Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t Ricky Bobby

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.

Alex Bowman still waiting for his big break

The last time Alex Bowman was at Phoenix Raceway, it looked like he had a career breakthrough. The Tucson native led 194 laps after starting from the pole and nearly won a Cup race over Chase drivers battling for a final four spot.

So surely,  some team would come along in the offseason and snatch him up after seeing how well Bowman ran in the No. 88 car during Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s absence.

But there Bowman sat on Wednesday, wedged in the corner of a hauler in between making laps around Phoenix for Chevrolet’s data-gathering wheel force car.

Bowman’s plan for this season? Well…

“You’re looking at it,” he said with a chuckle.

Aside from running the upcoming Clash (formerly the Sprint Unlimited) in the No. 88 car, Bowman has no races on his calendar. That’s surprising for a driver who was perhaps the top available young talent in the offseason, but there’s at least a partial explanation.

Bowman said he was offered some full-time rides, but he turned them down. If it’s not a car capable of winning, he’s not interested.

“I’ve been in so many different situations the last couple years, and I’m not going to do it if I can’t win or have a shot,” he said. “I had so much more fun running for Hendrick Motorsports and being part of a winning organization. I thought long and hard about a few different opportunities, and it just made more sense for me to stay part of HMS.

“Whatever my role is here, I’m happy to be part of it. I still get to be part of, in my eyes, the best organization in NASCAR.”

After two seasons at BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing — during which Bowman had just four top-20 finishes — the 23-year-old was ready to walk away from racing.

He describes himself as “miserable” back then. Bowman felt pressure to improve his performance, “but the reality is you can only do so much.” He concluded that wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

So when the Hendrick opportunity came along, Bowman savored it. He had three top-10 finishes in 10 races and ran better than his results showed.

After that, he decided he couldn’t go back to just trying to make the best of a backmarker car.

“I can get in a 35th-place car and run 30th with it on a good day, but nobody notices that stuff,” he said. “I feel like I proved all I can (in the 88), and if the right opportunity comes, great. If it doesn’t, I’m happy where I’m at and it’s been fun to be part of this organization.”

Bowman will continue to drive the Chevy simulator for Hendrick and might do more tests in the wheel force car. He also expects to be at every race this season, which he said was “going to be weird.”

 

Still, it’s worth wondering what would have happened if Bowman had gone to victory lane in Phoenix. Bowman isn’t sure, but he knows the near-miss still bugs him.

“I’ve thought about it every day since then,” he said. “It’s bothered the hell out of me. I don’t know the opportunity to run like that in a Cup race ever again, so it definitely bothers me a lot. It’s something I’ll have to get over it at some point, I guess.”

Phoenix Raceway organizational test session times

Disclaimer: These came in raw data, so I had to pull them from a spreadsheet and it’s possible I screwed up.

I put these in order of best lap times, not mph, because the data is more detailed in seconds than speed. Also, these are the top time from each individual driver, not overall (Joey Logano had 19 of the 24 fastest laps in the Tuesday morning session; Dale Earnhardt Jr. had 13 of the fastest 15 laps in the Wednesday morning session).

Here are the single best lap times from the Tuesday morning test session:

  1. Kyle Larson (Ganassi) — 26.586 seconds
  2. Joey Logano (Penske) — 26.595
  3. Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas) — 26.774
  4. Ryan Blaney (Wood Bros.) — 26.799
  5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Hendrick) — 26.807
  6. Aric Almirola (Petty) — 26.845
  7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway) — 26.854
  8. Austin Dillon (Childress) — 26.876
  9. AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty) — 26.896
  10. Erik Jones (Furniture Row) — 26.898
  11. Michael McDowell (Leavine Family) — 26.965
  12. Ty Dillon (Germain) — 26.976
  13. Alex Bowman (Chevy wheel force) — 27.027
  14. Daniel Suarez (Joe Gibbs Racing) — 27.125
  15. JJ Yeley (Toyota wheel force) — 27.186
  16. Landon Cassill (Ford wheel force) — No time recorded

And here are the single best lap times from the Tuesday afternoon test session:

  1. Joey Logano (Penske) — 26.674
  2. Ty Dillon (Germain) — 26.722
  3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Hendrick) — 26.774
  4. Kyle Larson (Ganassi) — 26.788
  5. Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas) — 26.802
  6. Erik Jones (Furniture Row) — 26.808
  7. Ryan Blaney (Wood Bros.) — 26.885
  8. Aric Almirola (Petty) — 26.965
  9. Austin Dillon (Childress) — 26.997
  10. AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty) — 27.043
  11. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway) — 27.045
  12. Daniel Suarez (Joe Gibbs Racing) — 27.085
  13. Michael McDowell (Leavine Family) — 27.142
  14. Alex Bowman (Chevy wheel force) — 27.276
  15. JJ Yeley (Toyota wheel force) — 27.286
  16. Landon Cassill (Ford wheel force) — 27.680

These are the best single lap times from the Wednesday morning test session:

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Hendrick) — 26.555
  2. Kyle Larson (Ganassi) — 26.583
  3. Erik Jones (Furniture Row) — 26.625
  4. Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas) — 26.685
  5. Joey Logano (Penske) — 26.690
  6. Daniel Suarez (Joe Gibbs Racing) — 26.710
  7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway) — 26.713
  8. Austin Dillon (Childress) — 26.741
  9. Ryan Blaney (Wood Bros.) — 26.750
  10. Aric Almirola (Petty) — 26.755
  11. AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty) — 26.763
  12. Ty Dillon (Germain) — 26.848
  13. Alex Bowman (Chevy wheel force) — 27.116
  14. Michael McDowell (Leavine Family) — 27.244
  15. JJ Yeley (Toyota wheel force) — 27.278
  16. Landon Cassill (Ford wheel force) — 27.622

And finally, the times from the Wednesday afternoon session:

  1. Kyle Larson (Ganassi) — 26.667
  2. Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas) — 26.698
  3. Joey Logano (Penske) — 26.703
  4. Erik Jones (Furniture Row) — 26.726
  5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Hendrick) — 26.731
  6. Ryan Blaney (Wood Bros.) — 26.766
  7. Austin Dillon (Childress) — 26.770
  8. Daniel Suarez (Joe Gibbs Racing) — 26.773
  9. Michael McDowell (Leavine Family) — 26.816
  10. AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty) — 26.924
  11. Aric Almirola (Petty) — 26.972
  12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway) — 27.034
  13. Ty Dillon (Germain) — 27.082
  14. Alex Bowman (Chevy wheel force) — 27.325
  15. JJ Yeley (Toyota wheel force) — 27.337
  16. Landon Cassill (Ford wheel force) — 27.437

Dale Earnhardt Jr. “freaking pumped” for test session, which is rare for him

Over the years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been about as enthusiastic for test sessions as he is for road course racing.

In other words, he wouldn’t mind if neither existed.

But this week, Earnhardt found himself “freaking pumped up” to come to a NASCAR organizational test in Phoenix, where he’s turning laps in the public eye for the first time since last July.

Obviously, there’s a simple explanation: He missed racing. From being in the car to the camaraderie with his No. 88 team, Earnhardt has been craving a return to a competitive environment — and this gets him another step closer.

“When you’re racing every single week for 20 years and you’re testing, it gets kind of boring, no lie,” he said. “But you’ve really got to understand what the objectives are. … You forget and lose sight of that over time. You start getting lazy. So I’m excited and happy we’re here.”

Video: Dale Jr.’s first laps in the Phoenix test

At 42, Earnhardt is returning to the NASCAR circuit after missing half of last season with a concussion. Clearly, the prospect of racing again puts him in a great mood. He was all smiles when walking to his car on a beautiful Arizona morning, stopping to ask reporters what social media platform they were using to document his arrival.

Aside from a small brake fire in the morning session which cost him an hour of track time, Earnhardt felt his speed was competitive with the likes of Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick (who won the Phoenix races last year and are also at the test session).

But he acknowledged there’s some anxiety about racing again thanks to such a long layoff.

“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. I’m really anxious to get out there and have some success, go out and run well.”

Carl Edwards confused by rumors about his departure from racing

Carl Edwards wants to clear something up: The rumors about him having an ulterior motive for stepping away from racing aren’t true.

Edwards appeared puzzled Tuesday when he chatted with a small group of reporters in the Phoenix Raceway garage, where he was on hand to guide Daniel Suarez through the rookie’s first-ever Cup laps.

After a long news conference earlier this month to explain why he was leaving, Edwards thought he detailed all of his reasons fairly well.

But then he started listening to Sirius/XM Radio’s NASCAR channel in his free time and learned some people believe he had other reasons for getting out of the car.

“It’s like all the sudden I didn’t explain myself or something,” he said. “I guess if people don’t understand, that’s just the way it is. I thought I explained it pretty clearly. People gotta have something to talk about.”

At one point, Edwards paused and asked reporters for more information about the speculation (which even his former teammates have seemed to fuel).

“What is it that people think I have planned that I didn’t say?” he asked.

The reporters responded by telling Edwards some of the rumors flying around in the garage.

“Man,” he said, shaking his head. “Well, I want to go on the record saying those things are not true. I know you guys need something to talk about, but that’s pretty wild. Pretty crazy.”

Edwards said he still doesn’t know how he’ll fill his time after leaving racing, but he’s interested in doing some sailing and has been working out frequently.

As for the report Edwards might run for political office, he seemed to indicate that would be something in the more distant future than 2018.

“That whole thing blew up very quickly,” he said. “Holy crap! That went out of control.

“The point is, I don’t ever rule out anything. I really do believe in America and if a person can help maintain the future opportunities for other people, that’s our duty as Americans.

“If that’s something down the line that fits in as something I can do, that would be an endeavor I’d be real proud of. But I’m not like putting together this campaign or something; not right now.”

Carl Edwards chats with reporters during at test session at Phoenix Raceway (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

Videos from testing at Phoenix Raceway

Here are a couple quick videos to start off the two-day NASCAR test session at Phoenix Raceway.

First, check out Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his first public laps since suffering a concussion in July (he tested at Darlington in December, but that was private):

Also, Phoenix Raceway held a news conference Monday to announce some major changes to the track. Here’s a short recap of that: