Dale Earnhardt Jr. gains new appreciation for Next Gen car at historic Bowman Gray Stadium

Dale Earnhardt Jr. gains new appreciation for Next Gen car at historic Bowman Gray Stadium
Lee Spencer

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t able to appreciate the full-out Madhouse experience during his maiden visit to Bowman Gray Stadium on Tuesday. 

Absent was the usually raucous crowd and a full field of competitors that have kept the racing alive in Winston-Salem since 1949—at NASCAR’s first weekly track. The venerable facility attracted the interest of the History Channel, which chronicled the 2009 modified season at Bowman Gray through its series "Madhouse."

Earnhardt, a third-generation racer, got his first look at Bowman Gray and embraced the moment while test-driving the sport’s latest stock car where his grandfather Ralph raced and won four times at the iconic quarter-mile track.

“I’ve never been here before, I’ve never been to Bowman Gray,” Earnhardt said. “It’s 45 minutes from my house and I’ve been dying to come here. I was a big ‘Madhouse’ fan when that show was on the History Channel. I’m into the atmosphere and catching all the YouTube clips.

“They’ve got a great thing going on. So it’s fun to be able to come here. It’s really cool to be here and get some laps. It’s a very intimidating place. The guardrail—you’re racing around that guardrail it’s just so chewed up and it’s just daring you to hit it. It’s really intimidating. That in itself was a great experience for me no matter what car I was driving today. It was awesome to come here and experience this place behind the wheel.”

Earnhardt solicited the advice of local favorite and Whelen Southern Modified Tour and BGS track champion Burt Myers before taking a lap. He also conferred with Tony Stewart, who warmed up the seat of the Next Gen car during a Goodyear tire test for the 2022 Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Feb. 6.

Earnhardt was somewhat skeptical of the Next Gen vehicle prior to his initial run. After running about 30 laps—with a top speed of 15.6-seconds—he was “sold,” not to mention absolutely giddy as he climbed from the car.

“It was a lot of fun,” Earnhardt said. “The car does everything better than anything I’ve ever drove in NASCAR. The braking ability and braking performance of the car is probably the one thing that stood out to me the most. That’s the one thing that took the most to get used to. I’m using the brake pedal the same way I have most of my life, but this car stops so much better. I’m over-slowing the car way too much getting into the corner.

“But it has a bigger tire on it, more grip. It has better drive off the corner with that tire. It just does everything better. And it doesn’t feel too unfamiliar. It doesn’t feel too strange. It does everything like a stock car, just better.”

To remain relevant in his new role with NBC Sports, the driver-turned-broadcast-analyst desperately wanted to experience the Next Gen car first-hand before opining to the race fans.

“I was very anxious to feel and sense all of the things the car is doing, and I begged them to get me in some more tests,” Earnhardt said. “You know, the first time they go to Martinsville or even Daytona or Charlotte, i would love to get behind the wheel of anybody’s car and get some more time in the car to understand it better with the sole purpose of getting better in the booth.”

Although Earnhardt won’t be part of the Busch Clash broadcast team in February, he predicts the entertainment factor will be off the chart.

“At the Coliseum, they will whittle down the field to 20-25 cars for the main event, but still, we saw Tony (Stewart) step out a couple of times and spin the car out,” Earnhardt said. “He’s noted that the shorter sidewall tire, it’s a little harder to understand when that tire’s going to lose the grip. We went through this same sort of thing when we went from the bias-ply to the radial tire. Drivers complained about not being able to feel the tire when it would get loose. They would crash and spin out without warning. 

“Over time, we adjust. We adapt and get comfortable. It will take drivers a little while to get used to this low-profile tire, but I think at that race we’re going to see a lot of drivers step over that line because they’re not familiar with it. They’re not familiar with where that limit it just yet with this tire. It’s going to get some guys and surprise them.

“I also think that contact with another car will spin the car more easily for that exact reason. It should be a pretty wild show. I can’t wait to tune in and check it out.”

NOTE: JR Motorsports confirmed on Wednesday that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will pilot the No. 88 Hellman's Fridge Hunters Chevrolet in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Martinsville Speedway on April 8, 2022.


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