- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CONCORD, N.C. -- If early signs are accurate, Dale Earnhardt Jr. could become a bigger threat to win his first Sprint Cup championship with the new 2013 car.
Reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing also could be even stronger with the new car and a new manufacturer.
The signs came during Tuesday's test, the first for teams with NASCAR's new package for non-restrictor plate tracks, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt said the car had a feel similar to what made him more comfortable behind the wheel prior to the COT (Car of Tomorrow) that was used from 2007 through 2012.
Seventeen of Earnhardt's 19 Cup wins came prior to the COT. He finished a career-best third in points in 2003 in the old car and had a season-high six wins the following season.
NASCAR's most popular driver, Earnhardt won only two races the past six seasons and finished no higher than seventh in points, having career-worst finishes of 25th and 21st in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
"This car really gives me a lot of sensations that are similar to the old car," Earnhardt said on the first of the two-day test involving 16 teams.
Earnhardt admitted he never was completely comfortable in the COT, even though he led the standings for two weeks this past season and ranked in the top five for the first 25 races. Whether that will lead to more wins and potentially a championship, he said, it's too early to tell.
"The COT was just frustrating for me," said Earnhardt, who finished 12th points this past season after missing two Chase races recovering from multiple concussions. "I had good runs and good races in it, and races where the car drove well and was comfortable.
"(But) I never really connected with that car from the beginning."
Earnhardt likes the new car, from its brand identity that the COT never had to the amount of grip and downforce that NASCAR has worked hard to create, in part by eliminating 160 pounds from the body and making changes to the spoiler shape and height.
Earnhardt also likes that the cars don't have to be yawed in the rear end to the point where they look as though they are sideways on the straightaways, so they will handle better in the turns.
"The car drives down in the corner, turns off the corner, really good," Earnhardt said. "All the stuff we were moving around in the back of the car last year, I don't miss any of that. So this is awesome for me. I like going into the corner with the cars going straight like they're supposed to.
"I'm enjoying this."
Keselowski was enjoying his first chance to work with new teammate Joey Logano and new manufacturer Ford.
"It's hard to get a great read on the whole manufacturer change because, obviously, it's a different car," Keselowksi said. "But I think all the signs are there that we have the potential to be just as strong, if not stronger, than we were last year, which is very, very encouraging.
"We still have to work for it and make it happen, but the signs are there."
Keselowski, 28, said the level of cooperation in the Ford camp, which he described as "very, very high," is a big reason he is confident in the potential for 2013. He said the "desire and passion" the Ford teams and the manufacturer share "makes me feel the potential is there to be very good, if not better."
Keselowski added that the challenge of switching manufacturers provides a motivation to prove the organization can be just as strong.
"One of the best advantages of switching to Ford is it gives us something to prove all over again, that we can continue to be successful no matter what the manufacturer or no matter what the circumstance is," he said. "That's very healthy. I also feel like, as a team, we have that motivation right now."
Keselowski's team has a new look as well. His paint scheme has gone from the lighter shade of blue with gold highlights that has been used for much of the past six seasons to the darker shade of blue and white that Rusty Wallace drove through the 2005 season.
Keselowski's adidas firesuit also has changed to look more like his new paint scheme.
"This is something I'm working on to try to keep up with the Joneses," he said. "All of these Hendrick guys have their new lightweight, cool fire suits, and I don't like getting beat on or off the race track.
"I want to be the best everywhere, so I've got them helping me out. It's a work in progress. I'm not all the way there, but I don't like getting beat [at] anything."
Keselowski, like Earnhardt, likes the potential of the new car. Both believe it could improve competition on the track, but said it's still too early to determine how much.
NASCAR's goal with the new car was to create more side-by-side racing and passing for the lead. But until they run in packs, and perhaps not until they have a full field to race, nobody will know for sure what will change.
The only negative Earnhardt found was the new 7¼-inch spoiler he said made it much harder to see out of the rear window. But he said it's "not dangerous or nothing."
Earnhardt said, as did others, that driving conditions on a cooler-than-normal track because of the weather were ideal for maximum grip and handling. It is his goal to test as often as he can prior to the season, so he can get off to a fast start in the first 10 races of 2013 and be in position to contend for the title.
NASCAR has January tests scheduled at Daytona and again at Charlotte. Goodyear has a February test scheduled for Darlington.
The governing body also plans to bring in teams a day early for the March race at Las Vegas and the April race at Texas, and add more track time for the March race at Auto Club Speedway in California.
Vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said NASCAR will continue to look at ways of tweaking the car to improve competition but said the basic parameters the teams will work with are set.
"I'm trying not to get too excited or form too strong of an opinion about (the car)," Earnhardt said. "Today is feeling good. Driving is good. There's good potential for this. The car looks great. It looks like a race car to me. I can get behind that."
1dK. Lee Davis