Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Las Vegas testing is a good barometer for 2014

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 06 2014:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Kickstart Chevrolet, speaks to the media before a test session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS, NV – MARCH 06 2014: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Kickstart Chevrolet, speaks to the media before a test session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS, Nev.—Thursday at Las Vegas was testing with a difference.

In the first place, it was the first test of the 2014 season with broad implications for the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.

And it offered teams a chance to see how they stack up against the competition at a track other than Nashville Superspeedway.

“I think a lot of teams just really want to get out there and try everything they can and learn as much as they can at a race track that we actually compete,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said before the four-hour test session started at noon PT. “This stuff will translate to Charlotte, Texas and a lot of other places where we see similar loads on the left-front corner of the car.”

Nashville was the testing haven for Sprint Cup teams during the offseason for one main reason. At 1.333 miles, it’s the only facility on the Eastern Seaboard with a size and configuration resembling that of the 1.5-mile tracks that are the staples of the Cup series.

Because Nashville no longer hosts races in any of NASCAR’s top three national series, it’s also one of the few big tracks where teams are allowed to conduct independent testing.

“Everybody is really anxious to see where they are (against the competition) after all the off-season work and study,” Earnhardt said. “We got an idea at Phoenix (last week’s race), but that’s a unique race track, not really comparable to a lot of other tracks on the circuit. This will be a real good idea of exactly where each company is performance-wise.

“I know it’s just four hours, and it’s one day of testing, but if you can come out of here feeling really confident, then you just continue to roll in that momentum and that confidence right on through the rest of the weekend. Then you can turn it into a really good result.”

Earnhardt said information from Thursday’s test, which differs from typical practice sessions in that teams can use telemetry, can be useful almost immediately.

“It will help this weekend,” he asserted. “We’re definitely going out today to test what can make our car fast for Sunday (in the Kobalt 400).”

FAST THIS WEEK, TOO

In what is becoming routine in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Kevin Harvick paced Thursday’s test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with a lap at 190.148 mph. He was the only driver to top 190 mph in the four-hour session.

Last Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, Harvick was the class of the field in leading 224 of 312 laps and winning The Profit on CNBC 500 at the one-mile track. Harvick also topped the speed chart in both Saturday practice sessions at PIR.

Harvick’s lap on Thursday was just a few ticks short of the track qualifying record of 190.456 mph set by Kasey Kahne in 2012, but the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing struggled to find speed in the early going.

“We spent a couple hours trying to get things situated and trying to get the balance of the car right,” Harvick said.  “We felt pretty good about after that. We changed a lot of stuff and did a lot of different things to the car. It felt like we made good headway in the end and hope we can progress on that (Friday) and make it even better.”

Harvick indicated that NASCAR’s new competition package for the Gen-6 car has added a degree of adjustability.

“We have a lot of things we can adjust on the cars this year, and a lot of those adjustments (are in) really sensitive spots—the jackscrews and things are much more sensitive than they have been in the past. NASCAR has given us some different things that will help us to be able to make bigger swings at the car during the race.”

SHORT STROKES

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings leader Austin Dillon was second fastest in Thursday’s test with a lap at 189.540 mph. Trevor Bayne was third quickest, followed by Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick. … Brian Vickers’ No. 55 Toyota smacked the wall early in the proceedings to cause the first caution. Dave Blaney brought out the second yellow with a spin off Turn 4.

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