- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. | Dale Earnhardt Jr. never wanted to be the voice of NASCAR, the one getting all the questions and shouldering the responsibility for speaking for teammates, colleagues and everyone else in the garage.

“I just wanted to drive, but that’s not all there is to it,” Earnhardt said.

Not even close.

Earnhardt has figured that out, evidenced by all he has done leading up the Daytona 500. He took track promoters to task, suggested ways to make races more affordable to fans and even offered to drive for free if his team needed to cut costs in a foundering economy.

NASCAR’s most popular driver the last six years, the guy who gained instant fame because of his iconic father and grandfather, has reluctantly accepted his position atop the sport.

“I feel like I take a big role in this sport,” Earnhardt said. “I am glad to be part of this sport. I am glad to represent the sport, either on my good days or my bad days. I love being a part of it, and whatever I got to shoulder that I feel is fair, I am fine with. If it isn’t fair, I am not fine with it.”

Lately, Earnhardt has found more unfair.

He ripped track promoters last week for demanding more of drivers’ time to help sell tickets. Bruton Smith, chairman of track conglomerate Speedway Motorsports Inc., and his chief lieutenant, Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, criticized drivers for not helping create buzz and fill seats.

“That’s not true,” Earnhardt said. “We’re constantly doing things every week for this guy and that guy to help racetracks. … They gotta take a little responsibility for themselves.”

Some thought his move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports before last season might prevent him from taking on a leadership role. Would team owner Rick Hendrick try to turn Earnhardt into a clone of clean-cut, rarely controversial drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon?

“From the very first time we talked, I told him, ‘Be yourself. We want you to be comfortable being you, and we won’t change you.’ ” Hendrick said. “That’s what the attraction is to him. When you get around him, you find out what a neat person he is and you find out why the people gravitate toward him.

“This sport needs him. The sport needs him to be Junior, and what really impresses me about him is if you try to insinuate that he needs to be like his daddy, he’ll tell you quickly, ‘I’m not my daddy. He’s one guy, and I’m somebody else.’ He’s real comfortable in his skin.”

It wasn’t always that way.

Junior didn’t want to be responsible for speaking for anyone other than himself. But with the last name Earnhardt - his father was seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, and his grandfather was short-track sensation Ralph Earnhardt - he didn’t really have a choice.

Everyone in the garage area looks to him to lead the way.

“I am not telling anyone how to do their job,” Earnhardt said. “I have an opinion, and you all asked me what it was. I am not the voice of reason by no means.”

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