Friday NASCAR Notebook: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s substitute spotter at Phoenix is simply "Awesome"

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, prepares for qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on February 28, 2014 in Avondale, Arizona.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, prepares for qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on February 28, 2014 in Avondale, Arizona.
Credit: 295695 Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

AVONDALE, Ariz.—When your regular spotter is under the weather, it doesn't hurt to have a substitute who is a NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee and a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

Oh, and by the way, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a spotter this week who has 16 Most Popular Driver awards to Earnhardt's 11.

Obviously, there's only one person who meets all those criteria. With TJ Majors, who guided Earnhardt to last Sunday's dramatic Daytona 500 win, staying home to recuperate from an intestinal infection, Bill Elliott is spotting for the No. 88 Chevrolet during practice and qualifying at Phoenix International Raceway.

During Sunday's The Profit on CNBC 500 at the one-mile track, Jeff Dickerson take over spotter duties, as he did last year during Majors' illness.

"TJ is good," Earnhardt replied when asked about his spotter's health. "He had some issues with his intestines last year that caused him to miss the Atlanta race. Some of those issues cropped back up—just a small infection. He's back home now. He's out of the hospital, so he's fine.

"He just hates having to miss it. He's a huge part of our team. We have such great chemistry. It's going to be a difficult situation not having him, but we've got Bill Elliott, of all people, (who) is going to fill in during practice. That's going to be pretty awesome."

And it will be Elliott, coined "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" by his legion of fans, who will guide Earnhardt through the debut of the new group qualifying format, in use in the Cup series for the first time this week.

"A lot of Most Popular Driver awards right there, like 27, or something like that," Earnhardt said. "It'll be interesting going through knockout qualifying, me and Bill both for the first time."

Their first practice together couldn't have gone better. Earnhardt led the session with a lap at 138.723 mph.

Phoenix is in the heart of the Sonoran desert—as in dry.

It hasn't rained here in more than 70 days.

So why is there so much conversation in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage about the weather?

It's not just casual conversation. There's a massive storm over the Pacific, and it's headed across Southern California on a beeline for Greater Phoenix. Most forecasts have rain falling when the two Cup practice sessions on Saturday are supposed to take place.

With the new knockout qualifying format in effect for the first time in the Cup series this week, the possibility of a practice washout on Saturday put enormous pressure on drivers and race teams to mine as much data as possibile from Friday's 90-minute opening practice session.

"We've been talking about it for a week now," said Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick, "because we've seen the forecast, and you just have to go out and try to put as many things together as you can and collect as much data as you can, so you can put your race setup together for Sunday.

"You know that qualifying is important, but you also have to concentrate as much as you can on the race stuff. There are so many things that you have to put into an hour and a half that you have to prioritize."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is gaining on Danica Patrick and Jimmie Johnson—rapidly.

Less than a week after he won the Daytona 500 and established his presence on Twitter, Earnhardt has 527,000 followers, a little more than half the 1.02 million who follow Patrick.

And you can count Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson, who has 552,000 followers of his own, among those who actively encouraged NASCAR's most popular driver to start tweeting.

"I, among many others, have been pushing him," Johnson told reporters before NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at Phoenix. "There have been a lot of people involved on social media—even people from Twitter—who have put pressure on him and come to me to put pressure on him over the years.

"It just wasn't something he was interested in."

That changed dramatically after the 500. Earnhardt has been tweeting regularly, including a number of "Throwback Thursday" postings that feature archival photos of his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr.

"As sharp as he is, and as much time as he spends in the digital world, I knew that, when he got involved, he would love it, and it would work very well for him," Johnson said. "He didn't enter as a rookie on Twitter, in my opinion. He's off to a pretty strong start."

And don't expect Earnhardt to stop tweeting or to run out of throwback photos any time soon.

"I've got a photo stream on my phone that is like 500 old pictures of my Dad and (grandfather) Ralph (Earnhardt) and Jimmy Means," Earnhardt said. "It's just a photo stream that I just collect. ... photos that I find.

"There are a ton of people on that, but I got throw back Thursday for years. I'm in good shape there. That's going to be fun."

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