Sunday, March 29, 2009
Hendrick is '100 percent' behind crew chief Eury Jr.
Martinsville coming at a good time for Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Jr. overcomes shifter problem to post a top-10
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The way I see it is this -- Rick Hendrick is the boss, the media isn't. He will decide if a change needs to be made and when and if he does, he will more than likely sit down with both Dale and Tony Jr and explain why he's doing what he's doing. I'll be a Junebug fan till the day I die, but Junior's gotta realize that he's not the one pulling the strings as far as his Sprint cup career goes (at least on the owner and boss side he's not). He might have a little say in what decisions are made, but Rick is ultimately the one who will decide if Tony Jr gets replaced. Dale Jr's smart, he knows what is said about Tony Jr and I don't blame him for getting irritated when people start putting blame on Tony Jr for what happens on the track. Part of the responsibility lies on the driver, and Junior's said that plenty of times before. On the other hand, I really think that Junior should have Tony Sr back, however that would take him away from Brad Keselowski, and especially right now, Brad really needs Pops to be there at his crew chief. So we'll see how this plays out for right now. That's all I got for right now, talk to you later!
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Everyone seemed pleased with the promotion -- except, that is, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Perhaps that's because it was followed by another on the part of Memphis Motorsports Park, which in January issued a release offering Earnhardt a lifetime supply of the city's famous barbecued ribs in return for a the driver's participation in the track's October Nationwide Series event.
“He's the single most important
icon in this business, and whoever
is No. 2 -- and you could argue that
about a few other guys --
the gap between them is long.”
"It would have been cool to get a heads-up that they were going to do that -- hey, man, we're going to use your name in this, instead of getting it sprung on you," Earnhardt said earlier this season. "Vegas did the same thing. What was the deal a couple years ago? Some ridiculous deal for them to try to get people to buy tickets. I told everybody to go buy tickets to Talladega. It's a hell of a better race."
Never mind that, according to track presidents, facilities are allowed virtually unlimited use of the names and likenesses of NASCAR drivers in order to sell tickets to their events. For Earnhardt, it all comes with the territory. Everybody wants a piece of him. His often smiling, sometimes scruffy visage has adorned everything from billboards to television commercials to ticket stubs and candy bars, while his signature or car number has appeared on consumer products too numerous to mention. Despite an ongoing recession, despite a streak of just one race victory in his last 102 Sprint Cup starts, Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains a one-man economic powerhouse, a figure who by his very association can lift share prices of a company's stock more than two points or sell nearly 9,000 race tickets in two days.
That's the power of Junior. No wonder his management team receives roughly four pitches per week -- ranging from the realistic to the ridiculous -- from companies or business owners interested in having the driver of the No. 88 car representing their product. No, he hasn't enjoyed the best of seasons recently on the race track. But in the marketplace, nobody else can touch him.
"He's the single most important icon in this business, and whoever is No. 2 -- and you could argue that about a few other guys -- the gap between them is long," said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway. "He's it, and everybody else is eating his dust in a big way. That's why it's so important that he have a good year, that he win races, that he contend for the championship. The quickest fix for whatever ails our sport is Junior winning races."
But to the brands Earnhardt represents, he doesn't necessarily have to win. He just has to be, well, Dale Jr. Just ask the folks at Amp Energy, the PepsiCo product that serves as co-primary sponsor of his race car. Before it joined forces with Earnhardt prior to last year, the company was a relatively minor player in the energy drink market, and enjoyed only a fraction of the brand awareness of industry leader Red Bull. Now it's ubiquitous, as all those race fans wearing all those green and white caps and jackets will attest. He hasn't won a championship, hasn't come close. He's won only one race in Amp colors. But when it comes to product visibility, Earnhardt has the closest thing in NASCAR to a Midas touch.
"Within NASCAR, we've seen tremendous growth," said Ken Strnad, Amp Energy's senior manager. "We've seen over 120 percent growth for the Amp trademark within NASCAR strongholds, so it's just been a huge success for the brand as well for Dale, I would think. I think the results just speak to how powerful he is as a sports property."
“When you think about that sea of red
turning into a sea of green, it's just an
amazing testimony to the power of the
-KEN STRNAD, Amp Energy
It seemed an incongruous combination -- a race car driver and cologne? This was 2001, before the Daytona 500 became a fragrance, before Jeff Gordon began to pitch Halston, back when the only smells associated with NASCAR were those of tires and fuel. So what on earth was L'Oreal doing, signing Earnhardt to represent its Drakkar Noir brand? Getting way ahead of the curve, as it turns out. The result was an astonishing 46 percent growth rate, which vaulted the fragrance from 18th to second in the market. And this was before most of Earnhardt's Most Popular Driver Awards, before most of his race wins, back when he was a kid with blond highlights living in his father's considerable shadow.
"NASCAR was kind of on the upswing in terms of its popularity, and Dale Jr. was just kind of coming out of the box, and we were really the first person to position him not in his uniform, not as a typical race car driver guy, but to position him as a lifestyle," said Thayer Lavielle, who engineered that campaign for L'Oreal, and is now vice president for marketing and branding at JR Motorsports. "That allowed us to open up an entire new market to our department store distribution and to bring NASCAR fans into those department stores for a different reason, and conversely bring our brand into a sport that had never been tapped before."
Over at Amp, Strnad can relate. The energy drink had a marketing platform built primarily around extreme sports before PepsiCo's existing relationship with the Hendrick team -- and Earmhardt's admitted affinity for Mountain Dew, of which Amp is a spinoff -- led to the creation of the now-familiar green and white No. 88 car after Dale Jr. joined the super team prior to the 2008 campaign. The six-year-old beverage brand wanted to recast itself around a new image and raise awareness of its product. Thus far, the results have exceeded everyone's expectations.
"When you think about that sea of red turning into a sea of green, it's just an amazing testimony to the power of the Dale sponsorship," said Strnad, referring to the colors worn by members of Earnhardt's fan base today, and during his long tenure with former primary sponsor Budweiser.
"We know that when you go down to a race, the Amp brand is just everywhere. It's overwhelming. From a business performance standpoint, the results are extraordinary."
Wrangler, which enjoys a long history with the Earnhardts, features Dale Jr. in every one of its marketing platforms.
How extraordinary? Consider that even the best-selling energy drinks, on average, enjoy a household penetration of about 24 percent. Among Earnhardt fans, Amp's penetration is 50 percent. In geographic areas where NASCAR is popular, Amp has experienced a growth rate of 120 percent. Overall awareness jumped 17 points, helping the brand move from sixth- to fourth-most popular in the industry. The rise of Amp, the fastest-growing energy drink in America last year, even helped buoy sales of the entire energy-drink category. Oh, and shares of the company's stock went up 2.5 points, too. That's the Junior effect in action.
"We did that with Dale in light of an oil crisis and a recession," Strnad said. "These growth rates are phenomenal. The energy drink category grew about 9 percent in 2008, so we far surpassed category norms as far as growth. With the economic climate being what it is and those growth rates, it shows you how tremendous this sponsorship has been for the Amp brand."
With results like that, no wonder the Wrangler jeans brand recently extended its partnership with Earnhardt for a sixth consecutive year. The company -- which enjoys a long history with the Earnhardts, going back to the Wrangler sponsorship of Dale Sr.'s race cars in the 1980s -- features Dale Jr. in every one of its marketing platforms, from television commercials to in-store displays. Unlike an emerging brand like Amp, Wrangler has long been No. 1 in its class.
Earnhardt helps it stay there.
"I definitely think he has helped us increase our brand awareness," said Jenni Broyles, senior marketing communication manager for Wrangler. "We have a really strong, healthy brand, and he adds to that and helps build that brand awareness and in general brings a positive perception toward the brand. People who can identify with him can also identify with our brand. I think to be realistic, there are numerous factors that help us sell product or sell product to our retailers. But I have no doubt that Dale, or who he is or how natural it is for him to be in Wrangler, has benefited us tremendously."
Anatomy of a pitch
Four times a week. That's how often Thayer Lavielle, vice president for branding and marketing at JR Motorsports -- and the point person when it comes to control of Earnhardt's image -- is approached by someone interested in having their company or product associated with NASCAR's most popular driver. Some of them are legitimate sponsorship opportunities. Others ... well, not as much so.
"It can range from anything from, I have my own fruit basket business and I want to buy a sticker on the car and have Dale Jr. do all my advertising, to, I own a company that makes leather chairs and I want Dale Jr. to be my spokesperson and I'll send his entire company chairs. It really runs the gamut of stuff from lifestyle to racing," Lavielle said. "I'm always appreciative, but we get a lot of people who in their mind think Dale Jr. is a fit, and then in our mind we think,
I can see where you're going with that, but that's not really where he is today."
Earnhardt's likeness, signature or car number adorns more than 100 different kinds of products, running the gamut from bedding to T-shirts to decals. That licensing empire, overseen at JR Motorsports by Joe Mattes, is separate from the marketing side, where Lavielle and JR Motorsports president Kelley Earnhardt oversee a more stringent vetting process -- understandable, given that they're dealing with companies that Earnhardt Jr. will be personally associated with. Right now there are about nine major partners that Earnhardt represents, ranging from car sponsors Amp and National Guard, to apparel makers Wrangler and Adidas, to the Web hosting site godaddy.com.
When it comes to choosing partners, Earnhardt -- who does, after all, have a race car to compete in -- allows his management team to do much of the heavy lifting. Sometimes partnerships will occur organically; that's what happened in the case of Adidas, whose products Earnhardt has worn for years. In other instances, a licensing partner may choose to ramp up efforts and step into the marketing arena. But when it comes to an outside pitch, there's often an initial feeling-out process. Is the company familiar with NASCAR? Is it familiar with Earnhardt and who he is? If the answer to those questions is yes, Lavielle may ask to see a commercial script. After that script has been reviewed, edited and tweaked so both sides are comfortable, it finally lands in the hands of the driver himself.
Nine times out of 10, Lavielle said, Earnhardt will give the concept the green light. He also has 100 percent veto power. And it isn't uncommon for Earnhardt to become personally involved in the creative process; this is, after all, a driver with a keen sense of both his fan base and his own image, who oversaw many of the cosmetic details of his No. 88 car when he first moved to Hendrick.
"I think all of our partners have been extremely receptive to him being involved as much as he wants to be," Lavielle said. "What we try to do before we get to the place where he's involved is, try to set the foundation with the partner and say, 'Here's what he's comfortable with, here are some of his suggestions, and here are some things he may be comfortable or not comfortable doing.' An ideal situation is Amp, where we collaborated on what that creative was ahead of time, and it wasn't solely the brand coming to us trying to retrofit into it. It was, how do we try to create something that feels true to both brands?"
Of course, as some recent race track promotions would suggest, not every advertisement involving Earnhardt receives a prior stamp of approval. A minor flap arose in early 2008 after Texas Motor Speedway erected a series of billboards, each stating different reasons to buy tickets to the Fort Worth track. Four of them declared, "Reason #88: Step-Mom," a reference to Earnhardt's falling-out with stepmother Teresa over control of Dale Earnhardt Inc. Kelley Earnhardt asked that the billboards be changed, and track president Eddie Gossage acquiesced.
The billboards may have pushed the limits of good taste, but Gossage said he was completely within his rights as a NASCAR track promoter to erect them in the first place.
"We can produce any billboard we want to, any newspaper ad, and radio ad, any TV ad using his name, his likeness, his image," Gossage said. "There is absolutely no limits to what we can do, and even the drivers don't know that, I don't believe. But when they sign that entry form to enter the race, that is part of what they're signing away, the ability of the promoter to use it, as you should. We're paying millions of dollars. We should have their likeness to use, and we do. Whether it was that silly billboard last year or anything else, we don't have to run it by anybody."
Las Vegas Motor Speedway president Chris Powell said the same thing about his South Point Jackpot promotion. Powell emphasized that he thought he had cleared the idea with Earnhardt's representatives, but word evidently never got to the driver.
Still: "We didn't have to have Dale Jr.'s permission to do what we did a year ago," Powell said.
"We [contacted his representatives] as a favor. As a courtesy to say, 'We want to put your name on this promotion.' We don't even have to do that. Because of the agreement each driver has with NASCAR, we are able to use their likeness, we are able to use their name, in order to promote selling tickets. Now, if we try to promote, say, something other than a NASCAR event, then we would certainly owe it to them to get their permission. But to promote a NASCAR event, we can use any driver's likeness or name."
And tracks aren't shy about using Earnhardt. Gossage said Texas uses the driver in every type of advertising it does -- outdoor, television, radio, even e-mail blasts. Every year the facility produces a poster that it sends out to hundreds of thousands of potential ticket buyers. Usually, Earnhardt is the driver featured on it.
"I'm a promoter," Gossage said. "If I can't feel it here in my gut, then I shouldn't be doing this. It's just clear. I don't know the sales figures, but I anecdotally go, look at the huge crowd out there behind Junior's hauler versus whoever else is down the way. Driver introductions, listen to that crowd. It's just obvious. There are some guys who certainly rival him -- Jeff [Gordon], Jimmie [Johnson], Tony [Stewart], Carl [Edwards]. But they're not there, and I think they'd tell you that, too."
The genuine article
From her first days at work at JR Motorsports, Lavielle can recall Earnhardt walking into the office wearing Adidas sweatpants and a T-shirt bearing the company's tri-foil logo. So when it came time for the driver to partner with a sportswear company, there really was only one choice. "He's always been an Adidas guy," Lavielle said. "So it was never really an option to go to another brand on that. That's where his heart and soul is."
Companies love Earnhardt because of his unparalleled popularity. They love Earnhardt because an association with the driver is almost always followed by increased growth rates and sales figures. And they love Earnhardt for his penchant for using the items he represents, which only helps to tighten the bonds between the product, the driver and his legion of devoted fans.
"It's extremely important, because for us, if we're saying our brand is authentic and real and genuine, and then you put someone out there who definitely doesn't wear the product or believe in the product, it's a disconnect," said Jenni Broyles, senior marketing communication manager for Wrangler jeans. "For us, our brand positioning is all about that authenticity. So we definitely wanted someone to be wearing the product and believe in the product."
Earnhardt does, often because his association with certain companies stems from a previous association. A lifetime of wearing Adidas -- which declined to be interviewed for this story -- spawned into an Adidas sponsorship. His family's long history with Wrangler, which backed the car his father drove for owners Rod Osterlund, Jim Stacy, Bud Moore and Richard Childress from 1981-87, made him a natural to represent the clothing company. Executives at Amp knew of Earnhardt's fondness for Mountain Dew and the beverage brand's place in NASCAR, as evidenced by the retro paint scheme, taken from Darrell Waltrip's 1981 Mountain Dew-backed car, that Earnhardt drove at Darlington Raceway last year.
“I think as a marketer, everyone
strives for relevance and authenticity,
and I think Dale Jr. is the embodiment
of just that.”
-KEN STRNAD, Amp Energy
"He really does use a lot of Amp, as testament to the 4 a.m. e-mails we get from him. He really does use it. He and I have talked a lot about the fact that maybe the fans don't really buy into the fact that he does, coming off of Budweiser. So he spoke at length with the creative team about how to present the relationship with their product in a way that is authentic to who he is. Because it's true. It's nothing contrived, it's not being a salesman, it's him being who he is. And that's Dale Jr. He always is who he is," Lavielle said.
"I think that's why he resonates with people. He doesn't stray from that. When a brand that wants to get on board with him is looking for this huge climb, we look at them and say, 'Is it a product that he would use? Is it true to something that is functioning in his world currently?' We're not going to all of the sudden sign up with the fruit basket lady because she thinks it's a good idea."
But for an emerging brand like Amp, the Earnhardt connection provides a degree of pertinence the company might not have enjoyed before. After all, how many other drivers would look cool on top of a camel in a Super Bowl ad? Amp continues to build a campaign around Earnhardt, with plans to introduce a can shaped like a race car, and for Earnhardt's real vehicle to carry the signatures of 70,000 fans during the Amp-backed November race at Talladega Superspeedway. It works because people buy into the guy behind it.
"I think as a marketer, everyone strives for relevance and authenticity, and I think Dale Jr. is the embodiment of just that," said Ken Strnad, Amp Energy's senior manager. "One thing is clear about Dale, and it's the reason why his fans celebrate him so much. He is the genuine article. He's very relevant within NASCAR and has broad mainstream appeal as well. We know that Dale wouldn't just sponsor any product. Amp is a real part of his daily life. It goes beyond a product shot in a post-race interview. Dale uses Amp, he loves the product. It was the perfect fit for Amp, because we were looking for authenticity and relevance."
It's a testament to Earnhardt's ability as a product representative that he's at his commercial peak despite some rather uneven results on the race track. His lone victory in his last 102 starts came last spring at Michigan International Speedway, and a problematic opening to this season has forced him to make a gradual climb from the depths of the point standings. Heading into Sunday's race at Bristol Motor Speedway, he ranks 24th among Sprint Cup drivers, with a single lap led.
Earnhardt has his share of critics, people who believe he hasn't done enough on the track to justify all the attention and fan devotion he receives. More victories behind the wheel would surely silence them, not to mention provide his marketing partners with more of the authenticity they're looking for.
"I think it would help him, as well as those who are trying to sell anything with his name on it, if his performance improves a bit in the 2009 season, because he is so popular," said Las Vegas track president Chris Powell. "He's wildly popular. We've got a young man on our staff here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway who believes Dale Jr. walks on water, and he is just salivating for the time when Dale Jr. gets back in Victory Lane. He won that one race last year at Michigan, but I think with some people, because it was a gas mileage victory, it didn't get probably the respect it would have gotten if he would have been racing door handle to door handle with somebody and been able to pull off the victory. I think for his legions of fans, Dale Jr. needs to win as much as for himself."
For the companies that partner with Earnhardt, race wins are certainly nice. But they know that success on the race track waxes and wanes. The driver's popularity, meanwhile, does not. And that's what they're buying into, more than anything else.
"I would say certainly when he's winning, that's great," said Wrangler's Broyles. "We support him and want him to be winning, not just because he's with the Wrangler brand, but because we really believe in him as a brand. But at the same time, he's the No. 1 most popular driver, and he isn't always the winner. I think realistically, winning is great. But his popularity and his appeal and his likability ... is much more important."
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Newman, Wimmer and Stewart schedule to drive No. 5MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- JR Motorsports' No. 5 Chevrolet in the Nationwide Series will have multiple drivers for the rest of the season, with Ryan Newman, Scott Wimmer and Tony Stewart joining team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and all-time series wins leader Mark Martin for the 21-race schedule.
Wimmer will compete in six events and Newman in four. Stewart's one race for JR Motorsports will be Oct. 16 at Charlotte. He is already a race-winner in 2009, driving a Hendrick Motorsports entry to victory in the season opener at Daytona.
"This No. 5 team carries a strong tradition and a lot of expectations, and we are fortunate to attract such quality talent to help carry on that tradition," Earnhardt said. "We had a similar set-up with this team last year, and we were able to go to Victory Lane twice. Obviously with this driver line-up, there's no reason we can't exceed last year's win total."
The driver additions leave only two races on the No. 5 team's 21-race schedule unfulfilled -- the road-course events at Watkins Glen on Aug. 8 and Montreal on Aug. 30.
Earnhardt has already driven the No. 5 in two events this year, finishing seventh at Daytona and fifth at Las Vegas. He is scheduled for five more, starting with the April 4 race at Texas.
Martin, whose 48 victories are the record in the Nationwide Series, will drive the No. 5 on May 1 at Richmond.(This is great! Thanks Tony, Ryan and Scott!!)
Saturday, March 14, 2009
CONCORD, N.C. -- From Ric Flair to interactive participation in the burnout competition, fans will have plenty of incentive to come out for the 25th running of the NASCAR All-Star Race on May 16 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Speedway officials announced that one lucky fan will become a passenger during the second annual Pennzoil Victory Challenge in advance of the All-Star Race. The Pennzoil Victory Challenge pits drivers against one another to see who can deliver the best tire-smoking burnout.
"We're taking fan participation to the next level," said Marcus Smith, president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway. "With the help of Pennzoil, we're taking an event that was already a crowd-pleaser, making a few tweaks and placing an emphasis on creativity this year. For one lucky fan, it's going to be a memorable experience that will last a lifetime. They'll never be able to get any closer to the action than this!"
The inaugural Victory Challenge was an instant hit with fans and this year's version promises to be even more exciting, with one fan in attendance to be randomly selected to ride "shotgun" with a Cup Series driver.
The new format will allow drivers a longer freestyle demonstration and a panel of judges will score each driver's creativity. The driver with the highest score from the panel will be declared the winner, with $10,000 awarded to their designated charity and a reserved spot in the 2010 Victory Challenge. Each driver will compete in stock cars identically prepared by the Richard Petty Driving Experience. More participants will be announced at a later date.
The driver lineup has been expanded from five drivers to seven, and the first official entry is Kevin Harvick, who finished fourth in the event last year. A separate Pennzoil consumer competition available through the Web site www.pennzoilracefan.com will give fans the opportunity to ride shotgun with Harvick during the burnout competition. Sign-ups for the online promotion run through May 1.
In his duties as honorary race director, Flair will serve on the panel of judges for the Victory Challenge, which will be televised live during SPEED's pre-race coverage on May 16. The complete panel of judges will be announced at a later date.
Flair also will attend the drivers' meeting and assist SPEED personalities with driver introductions.
"I'm honored to be a part of the 25th running of the Sprint All-Star Race," Flair said. "I'm a longtime Charlotte resident and Lowe's Motor Speedway is an integral part of our city. It's one of the things that makes Charlotte a great place to live. There's nothing like NASCAR and the Nature Boy to get you pumped up! WoooOOOooo!"
Known for his flamboyant ring presence, Flair has enjoyed a 36-year professional wrestling career, winning 16 world heavyweight championships and in 2008 he became the first active wrestler ever inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame.= "We've had some great personalities serve as dignitaries at the speedway over the years, but I have to admit, none have been stylin' and profilin' like the Nature Boy will be at the 25th NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race," Smith said. "Growing up in this area and watching Ric perform through the years, it's going to be a treat for me and all of the fans at the speedway. I can't think of a better fit for NASCAR's All-Star Slugfest."
In addition to Flair's role on race day, he will be voicing the speedway's radio and television advertising campaign for the All-Star Race that will begin airing within the next 10 days.
The pre-race lineup for NASCAR's All-Star spectacular also will include a one-hour concert performed by country music award-winning duo Montgomery Gentry, and the Sprint Showdown.
Though no changes to the All-Star Race format were announced, Smith says some tweaks will be coming.
"We're talking about some different things that we'll be able to announce in a few weeks," Smith said. "I think, again, it's all about making it even more exciting for the fans.
"The All-Star Race has a tradition of having changes. If you remember back to the days of The Winston, we'd come out each year with a new format change. We've had great conversations and experience with the folks from Sprint and SPEED [which will televise the race live for the third consecutive year] and NASCAR to make the event better every year."
Tickets to the All-Star Race -- which start at $25 -- as well as all of the other great events in May, including the 50th running of the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24, can be obtained online at www.lowesmotorspeedway.com, or by calling the speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS. Convenient payment plan options and multi-day ticket packages are available.
The main events
To allay any notion that the connection between the All-Star Race and professional wrestling might be peripheral or coincidental -- at least in terms of the promotion of the event -- Flair unveiled a gigantic poster formatted like a wrestling card, with the heads of Cup drivers melded with the bodies of pro wrestlers.
The poster invites fans to attend the "All-Star Slugfest: A Night of Fractured Fenders and Shattered Dreams." One of the featured events, according to the poster, will be a "Transmission Submission" match between Dale "The People's Champ" Earnhardt Jr. and Tony "Smoke" Stewart.
It was Stewart, you'll recall, who drew NASCAR's ire two years ago for drawing parallels between the sanctioning body's calling of debris cautions and the staging of a professional wrestling match. In the case of the All-Star Race hype, however, Smith sees the association as beneficial.
"We're all about having fun, and I think wrestling is a fun thing to watch," Smith said. "It's enjoyable, and they're all about the drama and the entertainment and the show. We've got the best of both worlds.
"With the Sprint All-Star Race, you've got competition that is going to be second to none. All the drivers are going to be on the track going for the win that night. It's as much about glory as it is the purse. You don't have to worry about any points that will go against you, if you take and extra chance or two on the track."
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Monday, March 2, 2009
Win or Lose, Earnhardt Always Makes it Interesting
LAS VEGAS -- Even in the midst of a disheartening start to the season, the true believers continue to believe. In the long line of cars snaking toward Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was everywhere -- in 88s scrawled across rear windshields or pickup tailgates, in those familiar red and green colors on car flags or cap bills protruding from rolled-down windows, in the T-shirt worn by a guy standing up through the sunroof of a limousine, just like the Tom Hanks character in Big. The NASCAR driver was nowhere to be seen, of course, but he was everywhere at the same time.
This was Junior Nation, marshaling as it does every week, through race victories and long winless streaks and crashes and pit-road mistakes and controversy. Their man was in trouble, and they knew it -- a spate of misfortune in the season-opening Daytona 500, combined with engine failure last week in Southern California, had relegated NASCAR's most popular driver to a precarious 35th in points as the Sprint Cup Series rolled into town. His support system was out in force, its members honking car horns and trading fist pumps as the quagmire of traffic inched its way ever closer to the big speedway splashed across the stark desert landscape.
That kind of fan following is just one of the things unique to Earnhardt, at once the most popular, polarizing and criticized figure in NASCAR. People love him. People hate him because so many people love him. People embrace him because of his last name and who his father was, while others are repelled for the same reasons. Some don't think he's done enough to justify all the attention he receives; to others, he's been hamstrung by change and circumstance. It's hard to believe that such a relatively quiet, often unassuming, occasionally taciturn 34-year-old can inspire such a disparate array of passions. But Earnhardt does, every time he slides behind the wheel.It's all part of what makes him so fascinating. Anything Earnhardt does creates substantial ripples, like a large rock dropped into a pond. His triumphs and struggles are magnified by the brightness of the spotlight that's always focused on him, made larger than life because of the reactions they provoke. Any other driver misses his pit board in the Daytona 500, and it's a non-story; Junior does it, and it's a crisis. Any other driver crashes with Brian Vickers trying to get a lap back, and it's a controversy; Junior does it, and it provokes debates over the most overrated athlete in history. Likewise, just the sight of that No. 88 car taking the lead elicits a chorus of cheers that can be heard even above engine noise. Missing the Chase, ending a 76-race winless streak, changing teams -- his career is a roller coaster, and we're all along for the ride.
Just take the Shelby 427, for instance. Las Vegas is the place where Earnhardt recorded a second-place finish to truly jump-start his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, a result he surely could have used again Sunday. Of course, it didn't help that he qualified closer to the back of the field than the front. And then came an early pass-through penalty for speeding entering pit road, and suddenly for the second time in three weeks he was a lap down again, and all those folks wearing 88 caps were having flashbacks to Daytona -- where Earnhardt first missed his pit box, and then overran it, and all the trouble started.
We know that we need to put together about six or seven good weeks to give ourselves a shot at getting back in the battle for the Chase. We've got some good tracks in a row here where we can do that.
"I just keep giving everybody ammunition," he said after the race with sly grin. Actually he'd been rather cognizant of Las Vegas' tricky pit-road entrance, even thinking during the Nationwide event about where he'd have to stop in the Sprint Cup race a day later. Still, going from 180 mph to 45 isn't easy, as the nine drivers busted for speeding Sunday can attest.
"I lifted a little bit earlier, and when I got toward pit road I really got on the brakes hard and it wheel-hopped," Earnhardt explained in the garage area as his crew loaded up his car. "It was just my fault. When you're wheel-hopping, you can't read the [tachometer] and I knew it didn't matter if I could read it, it was going to be too fast. But just trying, man, tryin' hard."
On the race track, he was clearly beating himself up over the misjudgment. "I thought I slowed down way early," he told crew chief Tony Eury Jr. over the radio. "This thing isn't stopping like I thought it was. I'll do a better job next time."
He got back on the lead lap when David Stremme spun to bring out a caution, even inched into the top 10 with 89 laps to go. "There you go, man," spotter T.J. Majors encouraged him. "You're doing awesome. Keep digging." But track position didn't come easy, and then the sun started to set behind the vast grandstand, and the temperature dropped and the car got tight. Suddenly Earnhardt was back at the end of the lead lap again, struggling to make headway. Then strange things began to happen -- Denny Hamlin plowed into the wall, Gordon struggled to slow down entering pit road and shredded a tire, Carl Edwards blew an engine and Jimmie Johnson went spinning. Earnhardt drove through it all, keeping the car pointed straight while so many others went sideways, making up spot after spot after spot.
And when it was over, Earnhardt was 10th. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't textbook, but it was the top-10 finish that he desperately needed, one that boosted him six spots to 29th in points. Crisis averted, for now. Junior Nation can breathe again. Junior haters can go find someone else to grouse about.
"We really, really needed it," Earnhardt said afterward. "We know that we need to put together about six or seven good weeks to give ourselves a shot at getting back in the battle for the Chase. We've got some good tracks in a row here where we can do that. We've just got to keep our heads on straight. The problem with speeding on pit road is just trying too hard, and that can hurt you as bad as not trying enough."
From the top deck of the Neon Garage, the faithful hooted and hollered their approval. Then it was back to all those cars bedecked with all those flags and bumper stickers, and another slow crawl in the opposite direction. The dizzying amusement park attraction that is Dale Earnhardt Jr. chugs on. Next stop: Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Junebug fought all day long and did an incredible job finishing 10th. He did have one penalty and served it, eventually getting the lucky dog. With the top 10 finish, Dale Jr moves up to 26th in the standings.
Brad hit the wall and had a tire go down on the second lap and fell back 64 laps and finished 38th.