Junior's early showing at Daytona makes him and his teammates happy

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans instead of a driver's suit like all the other Sprint Cup drivers, basked in the warm Florida sun Monday from a director's chair outside a Hendrick Motorsports testing hauler.

NASCAR's most popular driver was as relaxed as he's been in years, fresh from a 17-day vacation in Australia and without the pressure of contract negotiations that followed him this time a year ago at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

"My teammates are testing and I ain't got no teammates when I test next week, and the COT ain't never been on the track here like this, so I came on down," said Earnhardt, explaining why he was at Daytona International Speedway when he didn't have to be. "I just didn't have anything to do."

Earnhardt is scheduled to be at Daytona for next week's second session at the track that will celebrate the 50th running of the Daytona 500 next month. But with all his new HMS teammates -- Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears -- here, he couldn't resist the temptation to be with them even if it meant being a spectator.

"They're going to learn a lot the first day," Earnhardt said. "I'd like to be around to see where they got some of the big gains. The second and third day, they'll have the car up to speed. The first day, you'll knock a couple of tenths off making major changes."

Johnson, Mears and Gordon were fast out of the gate, with Johnson posting the top speed and Mears the second-fastest in the morning session. Gordon was fifth-fastest, just ahead of former HMS teammate Kyle Busch making his debut for Joe Gibbs Racing.

"There's a lot to learn if you really want to pay attention real hard," said Earnhardt, considered one of the best on restrictor-plate tracks such as Daytona.

Earnhardt's decision to come to Daytona was last-minute. Mike Davis, who handles most of Earnhardt's public relations, was on his computer at 1 a.m. Monday when he received an Internet request for the trip.

So Davis got on the phone and made arrangements for Earnhardt to be on his private plane, which already was scheduled to fly to Daytona Beach when the sun came up.

By midday, Earnhardt was in the garage talking to his new teammates and visiting with members of his old team at DEI while everybody else was hard at work.

"It's fun to come to the track and not have to work," Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt learned this while in Australia, where he attended the V8 Supercar championship and later joined New Zealand's Marcos Ambrose at the V8 Super School in Queensland for wheel time.

"I went to races on Saturday and sat in the grandstands with everybody," Earnhardt said. "They didn't know who the hell I was. Sat right in the middle of the grandstands, right behind the flagstand, ate cheeseburgers and cheered for my favorite driver right amongst everybody.

"Nobody knew who I was. It was awesome. … My buddies were a little pissed off at me because they wanted to party and stuff."

There are few places in the U.S. where Earnhardt can go unnoticed. He was in the eye of the storm a year ago at Daytona testing, his first public appearance after DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt told The Wall Street Journal her stepson needed to decide whether he wanted to be a driver or a celebrity.

Earnhardt retaliated with several shots about Teresa's lack of visibility at the track and said their relationship "ain't a bed of roses."

That intensified a negotiation process that ultimately crumbled and led Earnhardt to Hendrick.

"There was a lot of s--- going on last year that wore me out," Earnhardt said. "That's not going on anymore."

On Monday, those pressures seemed as far away as the Australian reefs where Earnhardt and his buddies went snorkeling.

"It's different, for sure," Earnhardt said of being at Daytona for HMS. "Way different. I'm not the son of the boss anymore."

Johnson, who has won the past two Cup titles, said it was "huge" that Earnhardt opted to spend a day off in Daytona.

"It's painful watching other cars go around the track, especially at this type of test session," he said. "For him to come down, show the team how committed he is to being up front, winning races and championships, says a lot to the team, his teammates, to the team members and, I think, to the racing public."

Gordon agreed.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

I went to races on Saturday and sat in the grandstands with everybody. They didn't know who the hell I was. Sat right in the middle of the grandstands, right behind the flagstand, ate cheeseburgers and cheered for my favorite driver right amongst everybody.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"It shows where his focus is and how fired up he is about this season," the four-time champion said. "I think they're going to have a great season. What that necessarily means, I don't know. I know the equipment is there. Everything is there.

"But you've got to get the chemistry and you've got to get all the other ingredients that it takes to be successful."

Earnhardt fully expects to be successful. He doesn't hesitate to say he's one of the best -- if not the best -- drivers in NASCAR. He can't wait to get a feel for the new car at Daytona, where drivers already are noticing that handling is more of a factor than it was at Talladega in October.

He can't wait to prove to his fans that with good equipment he can win races and championships like Johnson and Gordon, who combined for 16 victories a year ago.

"I've been talking about it and talking about it," Earnhardt said of his move. "I'm ready to get some races going."

Earnhardt has plenty of work to do between now and the opener. There are photo shoots for new sponsors National Guard, Mountain Dew and Amp; getting his new adidas uniform fitted just right; and tests at Las Vegas and California that will tell him more about the new car than his test at Daytona.

"I've been enjoying the time off, but I ain't really bored," Earnhardt said. "But it's fun to come to the track without any responsibilities."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.