Sunday, February 17, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The two women showed up at the Sports Authority 10 hours early, intent on being the first to storm through the doors Friday at 9 a.m. to be the first to purchase Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s collection of apparel he helped design with Adidas.

Further down the line of an estimated 175 were two guys who voluntarily chugged Amp Energy Drink (and nearly lost their breakfast) and a man not wearing a shirt (but should have been) who showed off his twin brother’s magic marker work — an orange “88” on the front and “Dale” on the back.

“Please don’t stampede each other — no biting and no kicking,” the public address announcer said before the store opened.

Peace prevailed. There was enough “Jr. Nation” merchandise to go around. The first collection is 40 (sweatshirts, T-shirts, workout wear, hats, etc.) pieces, a number that will swell to 110 by August.

The scene was just another example of Earnhardt Jr.’s popularity. Even though he hasn’t won a Sprint Cup championship in his eight seasons on the circuit and hasn’t won a points race since May 2006, he is the sport’s most popular driver.

And it’s not even close.

The scene also exemplified the immense pressure on Earnhardt Jr. this season. His aforementioned record isn’t great, and he became NASCAR’s most sought-after free agent last year when he parted ways with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team his late father created, to join powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.

Instead of squabbling with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt publicly and privately — Dale Jr. wanted majority ownership in DEI — the 33-year-old is focused on winning races and competing with fellow superstar teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

“It’s been pretty nice to be able to concentrate on the things that are important right now, things like testing and working to get to know the guys,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “There’s a little bit less pressure in certain areas and more pressure in other areas. Being the son of the guy who built the place, you can get away with a few more things than most guys could.”

Earnhardt Jr. could be mediocre at DEI. He wasn’t going to get fired. And that’s a reason why he left the team. Winning 15 times in his first five full seasons, most thought Earnhardt Jr. was poised to challenge Gordon as a yearly championship contender.

In the last three years, though, Earnhardt Jr. has 18 DNFs, only two wins and finished 19th in points in 2005 and 16th last year. DEI doesn’t have the resources of a Hendrick and figuring a change of scenery would energize and help his career, Earnhardt Jr. made the leap.

“There is a peace of mind,” he said. “It comes from just knowing that I’m taking the risk and it took a lot of guts to do it, so I’m pretty proud of being able to just do it. I took the risk to put my career and my credibility on the line to work with a company that has won a lot of races.”

The first result: Instead of wearing No. 8 red-and-black Budweiser gear during today’s Daytona 500, a majority of the estimated 200,000 will wear No. 88 apparel with Amp and the National Guard finding it’s good to be an Earnhardt Jr. sponsor.

Motorsports Authentics handles Earnhardt Jr.’s on-site apparel and an early estimate is his sales will comprise 30 percent of the company’s revenue this year. At Daytona, he has four merchandise haulers.

The second result: A more successful Earnhardt Jr. is good for NASCAR. Ratings for last weekend’s Budweiser Shootout — won by Earnhardt Jr. — increased six percent.

“He’s the marquee driver that we have, no different than a marquee franchise that other sports enjoy,” NASCAR CEO Brian France said. “When historically important teams like the Lakers do well, the NBA does better. We’re no different than that. If Dale Jr. has a big year, that will help. He’s got the biggest fan base and they’ll be energized, no question.”

Defending 500 champion Kevin Harvick agreed: “I think everybody in the garage is kind of rooting in that direction. He made a decision that was personally right for him, and that’s the most important thing. There’s no doubt he’s going to do a good job.”

Such it is when Tiger Woods competes in a golf tournament. He’s the story win or lose, whether it’s Augusta or Akron. Earnhardt Jr. has developed into that kind of figure in auto racing — he has won the Most Popular Driver honor five consecutive years. Bill Elliott had won the award 16 of 18 years before Earnhardt Jr. started his run.

Today, Earnhardt Jr. is one of the favorites to win his second 500. His father won the race in 1998 and was killed on the final lap of the 2001 race. Junior won Daytona in 2004 and starts today from the inside of row 2.

“[The story line] going to be the same has it has been for the last four months — is Dale Jr. going to win the Daytona 500 with his new team?” No. 17 driver Matt Kenseth said.

Earnhardt Jr. was unhappy at DEI, and Gordon said he should be credited with not settling for complacency.

“I applauded the move because he could have just kind of sat comfy at DEI and just have his normal pressure of stepping it up,” Gordon said. “Now he goes to a team that’s won a lot of championships, and it’s now like a true test for Junior. I don’t think that’s necessarily fair in a way because it still takes time for the team to gel.”

Helping in the gelling process, owner Rick Hendrick added Earnhardt Jr.’s cousin, Tony Eury Jr., to be the No. 88 car’s crew chief. Eury Jr. worked for several years on the No. 8 car and came to Hendrick before the end of last season to get a head start.

Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, semi-sulked his way through the end of last season. He knew he wouldn’t be in the Chase and was heading out the DEI door in November.

“Everybody knows that if you go into something with a poor attitude, you typically have poor results or you have a miserable time anyway,” he said. “That isn’t saying I go to all these tracks with a smile on my face, but I do enjoy being in Daytona. But, yeah, a good attitude is important.”

At Hendrick, Earnhardt Jr. has been lauded for his work ethic — he showed up for testing sessions even though he wasn’t driving — and the transition has been fast.

“Absolutely wonderful to work with,” No. 88 engineer Darian Grubb said. “His feedback is great. You can tell why he’s definitely a top-10 driver. The talent level is there, and his desire is second to none.”

A superspeedway (seven wins at Daytona and Talladega) and drafting (learned from his father) specialist, Earnhardt Jr. said in the past, he would be fretting all of the early Speedweeks success. But not anymore.

“When we were down here a couple of years ago winning a lot, you could look at us and see that we were sort of like, ‘OK, what’s going to happen? When is something going to happen that keeps us from winning the next one?’ ” he said. “But this seems different.”

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