Earnhardt making noise with strong test runs at Daytona, Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- On paper, Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't belong in the same league as Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Gordon has four Sprint Cup championships and Johnson two. Earnhardt has none.

Gordon has 81 Cup wins and Johnson 33. Earnhardt has 17, none in more than a year.

Gordon has 234 top-5s and Johnson 86. Earnhardt has 76.

But when it comes to popularity, Earnhardt is second to none. His merchandise sales are nearly double that of Gordon, who ranks second. His fan base is so large that every race is a home game if there were such a thing in NASCAR.

But Earnhardt wants to be considered more than the most popular driver, which sometimes is embarrassing to acknowledge when he looks at the great talent around him at HMS. He wants to be considered one of the best drivers like Gordon and Johnson -- and his late father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, from who he inherited much of his popularity.

"That's why he made this move," said Gordon, referring to Earnhardt's switch from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to HMS. "That's why he made this huge decision at this point in his career and why he wanted to go to the best team he could.

"That's why Rick Hendrick has a lot of pressure on him, as well as Junior, because he wants to prove to everybody that he's got the talent. None of us really know how talented he is until we see him in other equipment."

It's still too early to tell how Eanrhardt will do with what most consider better equipment at HMS. But early returns from tests at Daytona International Speedway two weeks ago and at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Monday and Tuesday are good.

Earnhardt recorded speeds faster than Johnson, Gordon and Casey Mears at Daytona, albeit he went a week later when he had the benefit of their test data. He was consistently faster than all but Gordon at Las Vegas, the first gauge of the Car of Tomorrow on intermediate tracks.

Gordon and Johnson both have been impressed, not so much by Earnhardt's speed as his personality and knowledge of the car.

"I'm extremely impressed with his abilities behind the wheel," said Johnson, the two-time defending champion. "I've always been around him and raced with him, but you just don't know what's going through someone's mind when you're not a teammate."

From a pure speed standpoint, Earnhardt was solid last season at DEI. Were it not for six blown engines he likely would have made the championship Chase with ease.

"So I don't think it's going to be a clear, defined, you know, moved to Hendrick and picked up 'X' amount of speed," Johnson said.

But what is clear to Johnson is that Earnhardt is going to be an asset and a threat to keep him and Gordon out of Victory Lane. He's already seen that during debriefings at the tests.

"When he's describing what the car is doing, he has a very clear understanding of what the car is doing," Johnson said. "He can break down the corner, know what inputs are doing to the car. He knows how the car is talking back to him, the direction he wants to go in.

"He's not making it up. I mean, you can see a conviction in his eyes how he's describing it. That's what he's feeling. And that's what you need in our sport without data at the racetrack, the other modern tools that can be used. You need to be strong and have a good feel for the car and lead your team down that road to make it better, and he has that."

Johnson also likes what he's seen from Earnhardt personally.

He puts a smile on everybody's face when he gets in there and starts talking about things and the race car. He just has a great sense of humor and keeps everybody lighthearted and laughing.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"He puts a smile on everybody's face when he gets in there and starts talking about things and the race car," he said. "He just has a great sense of humor and keeps everybody lighthearted and laughing."

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who came with Earnhardt from DEI, is happy with the way he and his driver have adapted thus far. He's pleased with the power and handling he's gotten from the cars.

"It's just like we've been here a long time," he said.

But to stay there Eury knows he and Earnhardt must perform, that they must show the championship form that Gordon and Johnson have established.

They can't blame the equipment or meddling by Teresa Earnhardt, the owner of DEI and Earnhardt's stepmother, on a lack of a success.

"Heck, I probably get the same criticism on the flip side, that I'm not as good as maybe my stats show because I've always been at Hendrick Motorsports," Gordon said with a smile. "It works both ways. Until you're out there racing with him side by side or know what kind of equipment they're in it's really hard to judge.

"All I can say is so far, we've only been in two tests, [but] so far he's impressed me."

If he keeps impressing Earnhardt may one day have the statistics to match his popularity.

"But you treat him as if he's just one of us," Gordon said. "We don't treat him like he's this hierarchy or anything. He's a race car driver. He's been very humble and appreciative about working with us and ... it's gone very well.

"As long as we focus on doing our jobs behind the wheel and working as best as we can as teammates and as individuals, we're going to get the benefits he brings and also hopefully make our team rise to the occasion. To me, its' even more incentive to go out there and be competitive."

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