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Dale Jr. ‘thankful’ to drive for Hendrick at Daytona test

Relive all the best feuds, fights and breathtaking finishes of the 2021 NASCAR season, from Kyle Larson's dominant title win to the Chase Elliott-Kevin Harvick feud.

Persistence paid off for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a way he couldn’t have imagined. The result is that he’ll drive a Hendrick Motorsports car during both days of Cup testing this week at Daytona International Speedway.

“If you want to know the truth,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports in an exclusive interview Monday, “I probably texted Chad Knaus (Hendrick vice president of competition) about six times, asking him if they would let me run a few laps at the test.”

Earnhardt drove a Next Gen car after a Goodyear tire test in October at Bowman Gray Stadium. He sought to run more laps in the new car to gain a better perspective of the vehicle and share that knowledge with viewers in his NASCAR on NBC analyst duties.

Knaus wasn’t the only person Earnhardt asked to run a few laps for at the organizational test Tuesday and Wednesday at Daytona. But Knaus responded with the best offer.

“I’ll do whatever you need, anything you need,” Earnhardt said he told Knaus.

“Well, all our guys are going to the Chili Bowl, so there may be an opportunity to do the whole day,” Knaus told Earnhardt.

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson and Hendrick teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman are each competing in the Chili Bowl this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The country’s premier midget car event started Monday and concludes Saturday night.

NASCAR organizational tests limit organizations to no more than two teams. William Byron was set for Hendrick, but the organization needed another driver. Earnhardt said talk of doing one day then turned to doing both days of the test with Byron.

“(Knaus) jokingly said, ‘You sure you want to do both days?’

“Why wouldn’t I?” Earnhardt said.

“You used to hate testing,” Knaus responded.

Earnhardt’s feelings about testing have changed since he retired from full-time Cup competition after the 2017 season.

“When you pull in and out of the garage and make a change, you go back out, that process of trying to get the car to go faster, I hated that when I was a driver because I just wanted the car to go faster,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports.

“I hated all the frustration because nine times out of 10 the change didn’t help it. Then, when I realized that I was never going to get to do that again, I thought, ‘Man, that’s actually something I’m going to miss.’ I’m looking forward to going back and kind of reliving some of that.”

After receiving wife Amy’s approval, Earnhardt accepted Knaus’ offer.

“It absolutely makes my heart feel good that they think they can learn something (with me) from the test,” said Earnhardt, who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Jan. 21. “I’m happy to help their situation with all their drivers at the Chili Bowl, so those guys don’t have to worry about getting back and forth, or changing their plans, or trying to squeeze in anything. Everybody can do what they want to do.”

But this doesn’t mean Earnhardt will drive in the Daytona 500 any time soon.

“I know that people are going to want to know if I’m going to run a race or maybe run the Daytona 500 someday,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “Never say never. But this is not done with the intention of moving in that direction at all. If I ever did run another race, this wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

Still, the chance to run competitive laps at Daytona will be special for Earnhardt, who won two Daytona 500s, two July Cup races, five qualifying races, two Busch Clashes and and six Xfinity races there.

“It means a lot,” Earnhardt said of being back on track at Daytona. “It definitely is a special place to me. I think, it’s like you say, an opportunity that I never expected and didn’t know that I would ever have the chance to experience again.

“I’m so appreciative of Chad and, obviously, Jeff Gordon and Rick (Hendrick) for all being on board with this. They were thankful, but I think I should be the one who is thankful in this situation.

NASCAR Next Gen test car at Bowman Gray Stadium

WINSTON SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 26: Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives the NASCAR Next Gen car around the track at Bowman Gray Stadium during a testing session on October 26, 2021 in Winston Salem, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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Earnhardt admits that the limited number of laps he ran in the Next Gen car at Bowman Gray last fall did whet his appetite for more.

“Ever since that day, I have regretted the fact that I didn’t run more,” Earnhardt said. “In my head, I had myself believing that I just need to jump in and run 20 laps and this is something they’re allowing me to do and I don’t need to take advantage of it. I didn’t want to make anybody stand around and wait, so I got done, and (then) I went ‘Damn, I should have run way more.’

“I didn’t, and it was a missed opportunity. I should have really taken advantage of the chance to drive that car, and I didn’t. So, yeah, I think it definitely motivated me to seek out other chances and just kind of keep my ear to the ground constantly for a chance to get more laps in the car at certain race tracks.”

Earnhardt said that he believes the car he’ll drive at this week’s test has been the workhorse for Hendrick Motorsports at previous Next Gen tests.

“It won’t be like the car they’re going to race at the Daytona 500,” Earnhardt said. “That’s probably going to be similar to the car that William is going to drive.”

Earnhardt also said he doesn’t anticipate taking part in a large group drafting session on either day.

“In talking to Chad the other day, I was not going to get in a pack and do any drafting,” Earnhardt said. “They’re probably going to do that with William.

“There may be some times where I go out with William and we do a two-car run, or we may get a third Chevrolet and do three cars together.

“I won’t be out there just dicing it up. They’re going to have a couple of organized sessions that NASCAR is going to need everybody out there and pretty much kind of put themselves in brave situations, but I’m not going to do that.

“I’m fine with that. I basically just said, ‘Chad … I’ll do whatever you tell me to do. If you tell me I’m not drafting, I’m not drafting. I just want to get anything I can out of it.”