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No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Next Gen Car Test at Daytona International Speedway James Gilbert/Getty Images
James Gilbert/Getty Images

If you squinted just a little bit, it was still 2017 for two days at Daytona International Speedway.

That’s the feeling one got seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr. make laps around the historic track during NASCAR’s latest Next Gen test this week.

Why was Earnhardt, who retired from full-time NASCAR competition after 2017, driving Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 test car?

It was a combination of Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott being busy with the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Earnhardt’s persistent texting of Chad Knaus, Hendrick’s vice president of competition, Earnhardt told NBC Sports.

Earnhardt wanted to help out his former team while also gaining insight on the new car for his job as an analyst for NBC. This wasn’t Earnhardt’s first time in the Next Gen car. Last October he made laps in a test at Bowman Gray Stadium, the 1/4-mile track that inspired the upcoming Busch Clash at the L.A. Coliseum.

“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 told NBC Sports earlier this week.

Earnhardt said he hadn’t planned to take part in the test’s group practice period.

But, when the time came, Earnhardt and the No. 5 car were dicing it up with roughly 10 other cars in a pack.

As a winner of four NASCAR Cup Series points races at Daytona, how did Earnhardt compare this new car to what he last drove five years ago?

“The rack and pinion steering is probably the one thing that would be the most difficult to get used to, it’s so much different than the old style,” Earnhardt told NASCAR.com on Tuesday, Jan. 11. “The car steers really fast. Where you might turn the wheel quite a bit to go around the corner or try to get to a car to sidedraft, you’re almost surgical with the steering wheel now.”

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“Very small movements to make the car do a lot. You can’t get real crazy with the steering because the car’s just going to take off, start darting around. They’ve slowed the box down and done everything they can to take speed out of (the steering), but it’s still way too fast. It’s probably only an issue at a big track like Daytona, some of the mile-and-a-halves. At a road course, short tracks, you’re going to love how quick that steering is.”

Not present for the test were any teams from Stewart-Haas Racing, which elected to stay home to be more prepared for the start of the season.

But Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, was watching NASCAR’s YouTube stream.

Childers tweeted that he was “super impressed” with what he saw.

“Cars looked good and stable, and able to race hard,” Childers said. “2nd car can’t push the 1st car way out because he is choked off. But was still able to pull out and pass. Maybe the best looking SuperSpeedway ‘stuff’ I’ve seen.”

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READ MORE: A Look at NASCAR’s Next Gen Car and How It Will Change Things in the Cup Series

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