Sunday, February 21, 2010

Junior's momentum slowed by mechanical snag

FONTANA, Calif. -- Mechanical problems relegated Dale Earnhardt Jr. to a 32nd-place finish in Sunday's Auto Club 500, breaking the momentum of his second-place run in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Earnhardt finished 12 laps down after stopping for extensive repairs on Lap 183.

"We tore up an axle or a drive plate -- one of the two happened first," Earnhardt said. "Down in the center of [Turns] 1 and 2, I just got back to the gas, and the car felt like it had a flat tire. I don't know. Something's going on there where we're chewing that stuff up and tearing it up. We've got to figure out why that's happening. They think it's a material issue, so we'll just have to see."

Asked whether his team was sharing information with those of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson (Sunday's race winner), Mark Martin (fourth) and Jeff Gordon (20th), Earnhardt replied, "Of course we are. I can't build the cars. What do you want me to do? I just drive them."

Earnhardt's winless streak reached 59 races since June 2008, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. He has only one win the last 136 races.

"Looking at the guys around the top 10, we should have been around that No. 16 car [Greg Biffle, who finished 10th] I think," Earnhardt said. "It was a tough day."

What do Handy Manny (cartoon on the Disney Channel) and Dale Jr have in common? Read on....

Handy Manny and the Tools hit the Motor Speedway in the new primetime special, "Handy Manny Big Race"

Saturday March 20 at 7:25pm on Disney Channel Playhouse Disney's hit Emmy-nominated series, "Handy Manny," puts the pedal to the metal with the premiere of the series' second primetime special, "Handy Manny Big Race," starring Wilmer Valderrama and guest starring NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. and N'Sync's Lance Bass. In this exciting primetime event for preschoolers and parents, Manny and the tools hit the motor speedway as a pit crew for the highly anticipated Wood Valley 500. The announcement was made today by Earnhardt and Valderrama at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Earnhardt said: "My 4-year-old niece is a huge 'Handy Manny' fan, so when Disney Channel approached me about doing this role, I did it with her in mind. It was fun doing it, and being 'Chase Davis' for a while. I know Kennedy will enjoy seeing me on her favorite cartoon."

Valderrama said: "Like NASCAR racing, 'Handy Manny Big Race' is something the entire family can enjoy together. I am so excited that we incorporated one of America's favorite pastimes and the legendary Dale Earnhardt, Jr. into the world of 'Handy Manny.'"

In the special, Valderrama, Bass (who recurs on the series as surfer-dude Elliot) and the cast of Tools perform the new song "One Step at a Time." A music video for the song will premiere Saturday, March 6 on Disney Channel and online at In addition, will give preschoolers the opportunity to decorate their own race car for the chance to have it featured on air during the premiere broadcast of "Handy Manny Big Race."

A full-length preview becomes available on Disney Channel On Demand on Saturday, March 13. Select mobile providers will also simulcast the special in conjunction with the television premiere. Beginning Sunday, March 21, the special will be available at and on a variety of mobile VOD distributors.

In "Handy Manny Big Race," Manny and the tools help Elliot fix up his used race car to enter the big Wood Valley 500 race. The car turns out better than expected and everyone is ready to race - except Elliot, who's too nervous to drive. Famous race car driver Chase Davis (voiced by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) steps in to help, but Elliot's nerves get the best of him. With the tools as his pit crew, Manny gets behind the wheel in an attempt to win the race for the entire team.

A Top 10 TV series with preschoolers age 2-5, the Emmy-nominated "Handy Manny," which is set in a multicultural, multi-generational community and follows a curriculum that models problem-solving, is available in over 140 countries and in 23 languages (Source: NTI, U.S. ratings, most current, ranked among preschool geared programs with minimum 10 telecasts. 2009/10: 9/28/09-1/17/10). The first primetime special, "Handy Manny Motorcycle Adventure," delivered the series' largest Total Viewer audience ever (Source: NTI, U.S. ratings, 10/4/09).

In addition to imparting life lessons about working together, communication and setting goals, the series also teaches viewers Spanish words and phrases and exposes them to aspects of Latin Culture.

Starring are Wilmer Valderrama as Manny, Carlos Alazraqui as Felipe, Dee Bradley Baker as Turner, Grey Delisle as Flicker, Nika Futterman as Stretch and Squeeze, Tom Kenny as Mr. Lopart and Pat, Kath Soucie as Dusty, Fred Stoller as Rusty and Nancy Truman as Kelly.

The series' cultural consultant is Marcela Davison Aviles, president and CEO of Mexican Heritage Corporation. Language specialist Dr. Rose Marie Garcia Fontana is the series' language consultant. Rick Gitelson is executive producer and story editor of "Handy Manny," which is a production of Nelvana Limited in association with Disney Channel.

"Handy Manny" airs weekdays at 9:00 a.m., ET/PT and weekends at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., ET/PT during Disney Channel's Playhouse Disney programming block for preschoolers. The series carries a TV-Y parental guideline.

Playhouse Disney, seen in a daily programming block on Disney Channel U.S. and on 21 Playhouse Disney channels around the world, encourages preschoolers to imagine and learn through original series, short-form and acquired programming that include song, movement and entertainment. Guided by an established curriculum, Playhouse Disney supports multiple areas of child development: physical, emotional, social and cognitive; thinking and creative skills as well as moral and ethical development through carefully constructed themes, storylines and endearing characters.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Earnhardt Jr. Optimistic Heading To Cali

I got this article from The Speed Channel's website, but the article was originally written for Scene Daily.

by Jeff Owens

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a bit of a swagger in his step again and is more confident than he has been in a while after his stirring second-place finish in the Daytona 500.

His fans are also riding high, optimistic that the strong start to the 2010 season is a sign that Earnhardt Jr. and his Hendrick Motorsports team is poised to shake off last year’s disappointment and bounce back from its struggles of the last two seasons.

But Earnhardt Jr. warns that his strong showing at Daytona is no guarantee that his team has solved all its problems and is ready to be a contender every week.

He is optimistic, but cautiously optimistic.

“It's just one race,” says Earnhardt Jr., who charged from 10th to second in the final two laps at Daytona.

“We’ve got a lot more racing to do. It's not your typical style track that we run on all year. If we can go to [California], Vegas, be competitive at any point during [those] races, it would be a little more validation.”

Indeed, the next two races on the Sprint Cup schedule will be a big indicator as to how much Earnhardt Jr. and his crew have improved. He was winless in his second season with Hendrick last year and had just five top-10 finishes en route to a 25th-place result in the final point standings.

Team owner Rick Hendrick has made a commitment to improve Earnhardt Jr.’s team this year and made numerous changes during the off-season, including consolidating the teams of Mark Martin and Earnhardt Jr. so that they share more information and work closer together.

Those changes should have a bigger impact at tracks like Auto Club Speedway in California and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, two tracks where Earnhardt Jr. typically struggles.

The Southern California track is one of Earnhardt Jr.’s worst. In 16 races there, he has just four top-10 finishes and an average finish of 22.1. He finished 39th and 25th in the two races there last year.

At Las Vegas, he has four top-10s in 10 races and an average finish of 17.8.

“I don't like going out west, but it's much easier to go there after you run good somewhere else,” Earnhardt Jr. says.

“I look forward to seeing how we are as a team. [Daytona] is not a true gauge on what the changes are going to do to our team. The next couple race tracks will definitely give us a better understanding of where we are.”

Still, the runner-up finish at Daytona, where he uncharacteristically struggled last year, helps.

“I just hope we can keep it up,” he says. “[Daytona] was a little bit of a handling race. We didn't have too bad a race car, so...

“You can say that it is plate racing, but it really wasn't, most of the week anyways. It was more of who could handle the best.

“I don't know. I feel good about our chances going into the next couple weeks.”

Special Paint Scheme time is here.....

Already you ask? Yup. Don't be looking for the normal green or blue for this weekend race at Fontana. Dale Jr's color this weekend will be what I'd like to call a golden orange. Anyway, here is a pic of the car, just so you're not doing a double take when he gets on the track this afternoon. Thanks to the image.

Qualifying is scheduled to start at 6:30pm EST tonight on SPEED.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

2010 Drive4COPD 300 - Dale Earnhardt Jr. Huge Flip

Bud Shootout, Gatorade Duel 2, Danica's debut, Daytona 500 and Kelly Bires debut

What a way to start out the 2010 season! Dale Jr ran strong in all three races and I can't wait to see how the rest of the season pans out. Although he said he was disappointed about finishing where he did, Jr Nation is thrilled with how well he ran all day long. So here we go! In the Budweiser Shootout, Dale Jr's flag in the bottle said that he would start 11th. He not only started there, he also finished there. In qualifying for the Daytona 500, he qualified 2nd. I know he wanted the pole, but at least he didn't have to worry about finishing strong in the Duel. Danica did an amazing job last week in the ARCA race and saved her car in a spin that other drivers might not have been able to get through. Tony Jr did a great job in that race and in the Nationwide race. Danica made it through one caution, but then was the victim of an accident. She ran into another car and like she said, wasn't able to see where she was going. She was listed as finishing in 34th place. According to SportsNation on ESPN, Danica is scheduled to run the next two Nationwide races (California and Las Vegas). Anyway, Dale Jr had a great car, in fact the last person to drive the car he was in was Brad Keselowski last year. One false move by Carl Edwards and another driver send Junior sideways, into the wall, upside down, back over and into the infield wall. This accident not only scared the crap outta me as well as everyone other Jr Nation member watching and/or watching the race from the stands, but was also a statement as to how well those cars are built. As he said, it was going to take a big hit in the checkbook, but the bigger hit (to the fans) would have been if he was injured in that horrific looking wreck. On SportsNation today, the Nationwide wreck was featured on their "3 Tears" segment. Ok, moving on the "Grand Daddy of em all", Dale Jr moved from the front to the back to the middle of pack and finally at the end, finished second behind Jamie McMurray. I had to work so I was reduced to listening to it on the radio, but recorded it so I could see it when I got home. Anyway, at first Dale said he was disappointed he couldn't get up there an challenge Jamie for the win, but then later said he was proud of the team and his finish. Next week the big boys head to California and the Auto Club Speedway.

Also next week Kelly Bires will make his JR Motorsport debut in the #88 Chevy. Like I said earlier, Danica will run the Nationwide race as well in the #7 Chevy.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Earnhardt Jr. reloaded: Pivotal season looming

For those of you who have about the changes at HMS and are wondering what that is all about, this long but very good article explains it all......

By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM

One year later, he still can't believe it happened. For a driver it should have been instinctive, as involuntary as a heartbeat, as natural as pressing the accelerator to pick up speed. For someone with 18 victories and hundreds of starts on NASCAR's highest level, it should have been as routine as a walk to the mailbox. For Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of his sport's best restrictor-plate racers, hitting a pit stall at Daytona International Speedway should have been something he could do in his sleep.

And yet, it wasn't. At least not 60 laps into last year's Daytona 500, when he ducked onto pit road in third place and near the front of a long line of cars, and went to turn into his stall just past the start-finish line -- and suddenly he was past it, and he had to quickly straighten out his green and white No. 88 Chevrolet, and he had to go all the way around the 2.5-mile track again. He lost a lap, but he lost so much more. His 500 was effectively finished. And like a loose thread pulled on a sweater, his 2009 season began to unravel.

"Missing my stall shocked the s--t out of me at Daytona. I was pretty upset about that," Earnhardt said. "... Nothing's easy, but coming down pit road and getting in your stall is like breathing. It's like shifting. You don't even think about doing it, you do it. So it made me start thinking about it. It really made me backtrack. I didn't progress and fix it. I got a complex about it, and became definitely non-confident about doing it.

"Who knew," he added, "that would be the straw that broke the camel's back?"

The slow start, the change of crew chief, the plummet in points, the eventual 25th-place finish in the standings, the now 65-race winless streak -- can it all be traced back to a single pit-road miscue early in last year's Daytona 500? While that may be oversimplifying things, there's no question that one instance put Earnhardt in a funk. There would be another pit-road mistake later in that race, others throughout the year, most of them rookie-level screw-ups that left onlookers shaking their heads. Earnhardt and former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. even designed a massive pink pit board to try and remedy the situation.

Nothing worked. Earnhardt's confidence waned, the pressure built, problems in one area begat problems in others, and NASCAR's most popular driver slowly sank into the worst season of his career.

"The first four or five races, I just felt disoriented," he said. "I definitely didn't feel like I was sharp, missing my pit stall and sliding through pit stalls and doing all those good things like we were doing at the beginning of the season. Then it gave me a complex, so all the rest of the year, as soon as we hit pit road, I was like a fiend looking for my pit stall. Once I lost my confidence when I was making those mistakes, it just made the process worse. It made it more difficult."

Perhaps not coincidentally, his shortcomings in 2009 were followed by an almost monastic winter -- no vacations, a trip to his sister's house for Christmas, a night at his bar for New Year's. Yes, there are plenty of off-track interests, ranging from a JR Motorsports operation that will field the Nationwide Series car of Danica Patrick, to his Whisky River honky-tonk joint, which plans to expand from its original Charlotte location into Jacksonville, Fla. But he has people to run those endeavors, and says fans would be amazed at how limited his day-to-day involvement is. He spent most evenings playing online racing simulator games.

"Every damn day I'm home I'm on that thing," said Earnhardt, who added he's won about 180 events in iRacing, the series he plays most. "I take a break for 30 minutes to play 'Call of Duty' and shoot some people."

These days Earnhardt seems hopeful and cheery, with optimism brewing beneath the mountain-man beard he sported for most of the offseason. No question, last year was a brutal one, with his massive popularity and lack of production serving as a giant target for people to take shots at. And yet emotionally, he appears to have come a long way from the "end of my rope" comments he made last fall. He's exercising more, working on his communication with his race team. His No. 88 squad has been revamped, with owner Rick Hendrick attempting to merge it with Mark Martin's No. 5 and create the kind of seamless operation that has benefited Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. So many within NASCAR, from souvenir salesmen to television executives to the series brass in Daytona Beach, watch and wait and hope for a revival that would provide a flagging sport with a spark it sorely needs.

It all begins at Daytona, the source of Earnhardt's greatest professional triumph, and yet the same place he took those first steps into free fall last year. He knows what happened in 2009, isn't trying to hide from it or make excuses for it. But clearly, he's ready to move on, to reload, to strap back into that No. 88 and try and leave all that pain and disappointment behind. So much, from his psyche to the structure of his race team, has been tinkered with or refined. Now comes a season that will present his best opportunity to reach his potential at Hendrick Motorsports.

"I hate talking about last year. It was miserable," Earnhardt said. "I knew I'd have to answer some questions about what did I do to get better, what did last year make me feel like. But you know, that was how I ran. I have to own up to all that stuff. I'm looking forward to getting to the race track. I miss the track, I miss the car. I miss the environment, all the people. I feel fortunate every time I get to go back, every year I get to go back. We did make some changes, and I feel pretty good about them. ... We have to rebound, you know?"

Under pressure

It's never been easy being an Earnhardt.

Oh, sure, daddy was an icon who made millions on the race track. But he was also a polarizing figure who was hated as much as he was loved -- even among schoolchildren. Dale Jr. and his sister Kelley remember being called names, being branded as snobs, walking down the hallway with their faces turned away after their father was involved in a particularly controversial accident. The day after Bobby Allison blew a tire and flew into the fence at Talladega? Sure enough, somebody was in Dale Jr.'s face at school, blaming it all on No. 3.

"My dad was running behind Bobby, about five car lengths, when it happened, and the next day at school some kid was trying to tell me how my dad had almost killed somebody. That was his exact quote. But that's no excuse, you know? That to me was normal. I don't look back on that and go, 'all that stuff was abnormal, or that made me tougher, or woe is me for being a damn Earnhardt.' That was normal. That was life," Earnhardt said.

"I never complained about it. I never made it an excuse. I definitely wouldn't trade nothing for having to not hear those things. When you're young, they don't kind of roll off your back like they do when you're older. I guess I was lucky I wasn't that impressionable back then, and that kind of stuff didn't sink in and bother me all the way to the house, and turn me into some kid who dwelled in his bedroom all night."

And yet, a story like that one shows that the flak Earnhardt has taken over this past year is nothing new to him. In the fan base and the media, he's often hammered for his lack of production. People openly question why he's so popular. Wrestling legend Ric Flair made an appearance in Charlotte on the recent NASCAR preseason media tour, and joked that Earnhardt was building a big new house, amazing for someone who couldn't win a race.

To the Earnhardt kids, that kind of stuff isn't unusual. Their last name and their father's status cast a shadow that would have fallen upon them even if they had chosen another career. For Earnhardt Jr. today, win or lose, the criticisms never cease. If he does well, the conspiracy theorists spin stories that it was all fait accompli. If he struggles, he's a driver who doesn't work hard enough, or doesn't have his priorities in order, or just isn't good enough. "If your last name is Earnhardt," Kelley said, "people form immediate opinions about you the moment you walk into a room.

"We went to high school and middle school with all kinds of different criticisms along the way -- your dad is, this, your dad is that. You either loved him or hated him. We mentally were prepared for that continuing with Dale Jr. or whatever that may be. It's difficult for me because we're very close, and I don't like to see him down and out and not having a good season. But at the same time, I'm the one he looks at for support, so I can't get too involved in the negative side of it. I try to stay positive and try to find ways to get him to look at the situation differently," said Kelley, the general manger of JR Motorsports.

"You know, it's really tough being an Earnhardt. It's really tough being in our position. I'm learning it more and more, being out in the limelight, being a team owner and the general manager of JR Motorsports. There are a lot of people tugging on you, there are a lot of people wanting things from you. So to be him tenfold, I've been able to wrap my mind around that in a much bigger way the last couple of years. And it's something that's hard for people to understand unless you're inside that life."

And yet that's the only life Earnhardt Jr. has ever known, and to him it feels -- well, normal. The insatiable interest people have in him, his career, his interests, his facial hair, his love life? He struggles to fathom it. The most popular driver in NASCAR seems baffled by his own popularity. That's one reason he likes online gaming, because his competitors see him just as another name on a screen, even if they know who he is.

"To me, I feel completely, utterly normal," Earnhardt said. "I do everything everybody else does. The things I'm interested in are the same things everybody my age are interested in. I sat on the computer and played 'Call of Duty' until 2 in the morning last night, with who knows who, all over the country, and six of these other buddies of mine I know over the Internet, just from playing video games. They know who I am, and they don't give me no s--t about it. They don't ask me if I'm ready for next year. To me, this is just normal. I don't know what the fascination is, personally."

But it's unquestionably there, and it brings with it a level of attention and expectation that no other driver faces. Some are of the opinion that's what's needed to rescue NASCAR from its current trough of down ratings and down attendance isn't a revamped car, or relaxed rules, but Junior, winning again and galvanizing that army of his. That's a lot to heap on one person, but he lives with it every day. "There's more pressure on him than he deserves," Hendrick said. Even Kelley, who sees it firsthand, sometimes just shakes her head at it all.

"It's like when we announced Danica, and they said, 'How can you put that much on one person?' But it is," she said. "He has by far the largest fan base. It just is. I wish it wasn't that way. I don't know to make other drivers more exciting and compelling so that people want to support them and do what they do with Dale. You can't create that. It just happens. People have to come along to do that."

So no, it's never easy being an Earnhardt. He's rich and polarizing now, just as his father once was. Now he's the one prompting school-hall arguments, maybe over his involvement in an accident, or whether he'll ever be as good as his old man. Things have changed, and yet they've always been the same. Now comes another season, perhaps the most pivotal of his career, with a team that's been revamped in the name of making him better. The pressure is on. It always has been.

"I asked to be in this position," Earnhardt said. "I wanted to be a race car driver, and I have a famous last name. That goes with the territory."

Culture change

To hear Rick Hendrick tell it, the problem was partly one of location. The program that became Earnhardt's No. 88 began life as the No. 25, Hendrick Motorsports' original team, housed in the organization's original building. After years of expansion and growth, the outfit eventually found itself housed along with the No. 5 team in a new facility on Hendrick's sprawling campus. Yet they were stepchildren forced to live together, programs that shared no common blood, staffed by men with separate loyalties.

The ideal was right next door, in the building housing the teams of Gordon and Johnson, two programs that work together so seamlessly that the lines between them have become blurred, if they even still exist at all. Perhaps not coincidentally, the place is also home to eight NASCAR championships. Yet theirs is a relationship that developed organically, with Johnson's team literally springing from Gordon's, to the point where the current champion started out driving the old cars of the former one.

There was little of that natural progression in the other building, which now houses the teams of Earnhardt and Mark Martin. There was too much turnover, too many drivers or crew chiefs coming and going, to build any kind of cohesiveness. They were teammates, sure, and mechanics wore shirts with both numbers on the front, but there were still 5 guys and 88 guys, and -- as last season so clearly evidenced -- the two camps could still vary wildly in terms of performance.

"The culture of the 48 shop is one that was created from the 24 team," said Lance McGrew, Earnhardt's crew chief. "It's not like the 48 was in a different building, and they showed up and they were in the same building. That's how the 5 and 88 were. They weren't even on the same side of the complex, and next thing you know, they're sharing a building. Well, they're just sharing a building. It's just space."

To fix Earnhardt's program, Hendrick reasoned, he had to change the culture within the shop, and meld the 88 and 5 teams into an entity as unified and productive as the one next door. After Johnson's record-breaking fourth consecutive title was virtually assured, that project became the car owner's top priority. The process began with three races remaining last season, while Martin was still technically in the championship hunt. Hendrick called in McGrew and Alan Gustafson, Martin's crew chief, laid out his plan, and told them to make it happen.

"What we did was say we wanted one team. We take the best we've got, and we structure it this way, and we race two cars," said Hendrick, who has won nine championships in NASCAR's premier division, and 12 in the three national series combined. "And if I want to swap the numbers on Sunday morning, or swap the seats, then I want to be able to do that. That's how I want it to work together to make it better. I was blown away by how much Alan and Lance had gone to work on that before we went to Homestead."

The goal is a simple one -- make both programs better, solidifying Martin's position as a championship contender, and raising Earnhardt's performance as a result. The process, though, was far from easy. On the 5 side particularly, there were men who believed they had worked hard to build Martin's program into one of the best in NASCAR, and didn't immediately embrace the idea of being assimilated into a larger group.

"It was hard, because there were plenty of guys in the shop on both sides who I swear, if you cut them, would bleed sponsor colors, or little 5 platelets would fly out of them, because they've been so in tune and with those guys for so long," McGrew said. "But to a man, one at a time, they'd come up and say, 'This is best. this is what we need to do. This will make us stronger as a team, this will make us stronger as a company.' And ultimately, everybody here is so grateful for all the things that Mr. Hendrick has done for us in our lives, and the last thing we want to do is disappoint him. That's underlying everything. that's what we're trying to do."

Was there initial resistance? That word might be a little strong, Gustafson said.

"I would say there was some apprehension," he added. "I think some guys said, 'We've got a core group of 5 guys that have worked hard to carve out our niche and get our team running to the point it is.' And when Mr. Hendrick asked us to share that information and that knowledge and that personnel, the first thing you say is, 'Man, how are we going to do this and not hurt our team?' I worked through it with Mr. Hendrick, and worked through it with Lance, and mulled ideas over and said ... OK, this looks good, this sounds good. Once they start to see the structured change and the end result and the potential of it, then guys who were maybe a little apprehensive have seen the opportunity and the potential for what it can be, and that went away."

After last season ended, McGrew and Gustafson met individually with each employee in the 88/5 shop -- roughly 85 of them -- and explained that the two operations would henceforth function as a single entity rather than two separate units. McGrew worked to make Earnhardt's No. 88 cars more similar to Martin's, refining assembly procedures, and even changing things like wire routing in an attempt to prevent some of the mechanical issues that tended to plague Earnhardt last year. Chris Heroy, the former lead engineer on Martin's car, was assigned to Earnhardt. And although still crew chief on the 5 car, Gustafson is now heavily involved with both vehicles.

"We've combined so many efforts that it's one and the same," he said. "So I have a lot more involvement, a lot more understanding of what they've got going on, a lot more influence, as does Lance on my car. When you combine efforts and you combine philosophies, you're one and the same."

McGrew believes the benefits of this consolidation will be immediate. Martin said he can already see them.

"We were working on that as well last year, and started that really through the season," said last year's series runner-up. "But once you have a chance to stop and break and restructure and move some things around, you're able to gain a little bit more momentum in that. It's our expectation to bring the performance up for both cars."

Gustafson, though, knows that the toughest times are still ahead. It's one thing to ask two teams to operate as a single unit in the shop. It's quite another to make that request at the race track, in the heat of competition, when old loyalties are most prone to boil to the surface. That's where the success or failure of Hendrick's bold plan to rebuild the No. 88 team will ultimately be decided.

"That's when it's going to be the toughest time," Gustafson said, "when something happens, or one guy says, 'I need this,' or, 'I can't do that because I'm doing this.' That's when it gets a little harder. That's when all four teams are going to be tested. But I know we can make it. It's not easy, but we'll make it."

Ripples in a pond

So what happens if it all comes together?

It's well within the realm of possibility, given Earnhardt's historic strength at Daytona -- last year's miscues notwithstanding -- and the proven power of Hendrick Motorsports. The Las Vegas Hilton gives him 12-to-1 odds of winning the 500, placing Earnhardt in a pack of drivers in second behind favorite Kyle Busch. So what happens if he hoists the Harley J. Earl trophy over his head Sunday afternoon? What happens if he wins multiple races for the first time since 2004? What happens if he emerges as a legitimate championship contender for the first time since sliding into that No. 88 car?

Bruton Smith minces no words. "You would feel it overnight," said the chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns six Sprint Cup tracks. "It's kind of a mystery that he has so doggone many fans. You talk about stick-to-ism? Those fans, I mean they've stuck with him through a bad, bad year and they're still fans of Dale Jr. If he started winning, oh, it would be awesome. Ticket sales would go up, souvenir sales. His souvenir sales would double overnight."

It's all easier said than done, of course. Earnhardt's struggles of 2009 were only the low point of what is really a prolonged slump, one that's seen him win a single race since the spring of 2006. His fuel-mileage victory at Michigan in the summer of 2008 was preceded by a 77-race winless streak, and followed by his current 65-race skid. Although he made the Chase in 2008, finishing 12th, it's been four years since he was in the title picture going down to the final weeks. That's nearly twice as long as the length of the current economic recession, which according to the National Board of Economic Research began in December of 2007, and has clearly affected NASCAR in terms of attendance.

There are some who believe that any NASCAR turnaround would begin with a recharged and more successful Earnhardt, reviving his fan base, stoking new outside interest, bringing more people to the race track and more eyes to the TV. And no one argues that wouldn't happen, to a degree, if the No. 88 car suddenly started to win. The question is whether NASCAR's most popular driver has the power to reverse all these downward trends all by himself.

"You're putting too much pressure on one guy," said former driver and current television analyst Kyle Petty. "If our sport depends on Dale Jr., then this sport is hurting, period. That's not a knock on Dale Jr. If the NFL depends on Peyton Manning performing on Sundays, then the NFL is in trouble. They need to rethink their business plan. Will he help ratings? I don't know. If I'm a Dale Jr. fan, I'm already tuning in watching him. Is he going to create new fans because he runs good? I don't know. I can't answer that question. You can't answer the question of, has his fan base maxed out? There are still a lot of people that are adamant that Junior is the man. That's good, because they're the people that are tuning in, they're the people that are coming to the race track. But I don't think you can put that much pressure on one man."

Humpy Wheeler seems to agree. The consultant and longtime race track promoter doesn't believe Earnhardt winning again would be enough to foster a NASCAR revival by itself. "It's going to take more than that," he said. "If Earnhardt Jr. could win a couple of races and battle maybe [Juan] Montoya, and trade some paint doing it, and let Tony Stewart get in the mix too, that's what's going to pep things up and move the needle and get the phones to ring. Junior by himself winning a race passively -- by passively, I mean fuel mileage or something like that -- that's not going to click the meter."

So maybe multiple trips to Victory Lane by the No. 88 car wouldn't be enough to raise NASCAR back to its early-2000s height. But clearly, they wouldn't hurt. Anyone who has ever been to a race track when Earnhardt takes the lead has heard the roar, powerful enough to be noticed over the sound of 43 engines. So a complete turnaround? No, maybe that's too much to ask of Earnhardt. But a spark? That's something else altogether.

"I think Dale Earnhardt's lack of winning the last two years have really hurt the sport overall, because everyone expected him to be the leader," said Felix Sabates, minority owner of the Earnhardt Ganassi cars of Montoya and Jamie McMurray. "He has not been the leader. I hope he wins a bunch of races [in 2010] because if he wins a bunch of races, he'll bring fans back to the race track. He's good for everybody. I hope we win our fare share, but I want Junior to win a bunch of races. I really do."

Jeff Behnke, executive producer and senior vice president at Turner Sports -- the parent company of NASCAR broadcast partner TNT, and, in the interest of full disclosure, NASCAR.COM -- believes an Earnhardt comeback would also be reflected in television ratings.

"I think that there are a few teams and a few individuals that move the dial. The Yankees move the dial. The Cowboys move the dial. And Dale Jr. moves the dial," Behnke said. "I think the ratings would go up. Our job is to talk about all 43 drivers, which we do. But the answer is, yeah, he's been the most popular driver for however many years running now, and there are reasons for that. You just see it when he takes the lead in a race. You see the grandstands, and they go berserk."

Even NASCAR's chairman admits that a winning Earnhardt would be good for the sport.

"He's like the Lakers or the Boston Celtics. He is one of the major franchises in sports," Brian France said. "But what happens is, when he's been struggling, it does allow other people to kind emerge themselves -- Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo and others are kind of filling some voids. Look, nobody wants to get back to where he was as a very, very high-performing driver more than Dale Jr. I met with him [in January], and he wants to return and so does Rick Hendrick, and if it does, it will help NASCAR, no question about that. But that's sports. We'll have to let it play out."

For all his popularity, Earnhardt is still just one man. Victories by the No. 88 car would not be a panacea for all that ails NASCAR -- they wouldn't put money back into the pockets of former ticket-holders who lost jobs, or make up for the layoffs that continue to plague the industry, or magically make sponsorship money appear. Even someone of his status has a relatively limited reach. It's likely a gross overstatement to say that a revival of Dale Earnhardt Jr. would translate into a revival for NASCAR itself.

And yet, like ripples in a pond, a successful 2010 campaign by Earnhardt would clearly have ramifications well beyond his race team. In some ways, the Dale Jr. approaching this season is much like NASCAR -- both have been refined, retooled, and arrive at Daytona with something to prove to critics who believe their best days are behind them.

"I get a really good feeling from Dale Jr. this year. I really do, no joke," said Petty, who spoke with Earnhardt at the recent Sound and Speed Festival in Nashville, Tenn. "I think he's excited about this year. He's excited like he was when he was 16 and going to run Caraway and going to run Concord. He has a little of that spark when you talk to him. If he turns it around, it's going to be huge for the sport. It's going to be big for his fans, it's going to be big for the sport, it's going to be big for everybody, because the tide will rise and the ships will float with him."