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Dale Junior’s Ride Tied to Sport’s Success

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The most popular driver seven years running in the Sprint Cup Series hasn't won a race or pole position in nearly two years. Last season, he was 25th in points with two top-five finishes and three top-10s, all career worsts.

Does Dale Earnhardt Jr. need to perform well to be the face of NASCAR?

"Apparently not," Earnhardt deadpanned.

The answer drew guffaws from a throng around him on Daytona 500 media day last week. But 2010 could be a watershed - or washout - season for the son of a seven-time champion whose iconic personality (and 2001 death during its marquee event) helped NASCAR mushroom from regional to mainstream in the 1990s.

After four consecutive seasons of sagging TV ratings and flat or declining attendance at nearly every track, many are pointing to a breakout year by Earnhardt as a panacea. NASCAR chairman Brian France says Earnhardt is "like the Lakers or Celtics. He is the major franchise, and if he returns . . . to that high level, it'll help."

Earnhardt got off to a good start in qualifying for Sunday's 52nd running of the "Great American Race." He will start second, alongside pole-sitter and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin, who says, "Dale Jr. is due for some good days" after a year of tough-luck accidents, mechanical failures and pit miscues.

Says Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip: "The one thing that could make a difference this year would be him winning the Daytona 500 and being a contender. It would energize the sport."

Yet beyond NASCAR's reputation, there might be even more at stake for the image of Earnhardt, 35. The most miserable season of a 10-year, 18-victory career coincided with Hendrick becoming the first team to finish 1-2-3 in the standings with Jimmie Johnson, Martin and Jeff Gordon. A shake-up of the No. 88 Chevrolet's crew is targeted at improving results, but it also might buoy Earnhardt's marketability, which seemingly is showing erosion.

In polling of fans in November, Earnhardt ranked behind Tony Stewart and Martin among NASCAR drivers in the Davie-Brown Index, which measures an athlete's relevance to consumer behavior across 10 categories. It's the first time Earnhardt wasn't first since the Motorsports DBI began in 2008 (last year he led by a wide margin).

"That surprised us, because the previous two studies, there was Junior and then everybody else," says Mike Mooney, vice president of motor sports for Millsport, the Charlotte-based marketing agency that compiles the DBI. "Stewart and Martin had a great combo of story lines with new teams and being competitive. It drives home that per formance is king in the minds of the fan."

Earnhardt's slump has opened the door for emerging Cup stars such as Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Mooney, though, says there "is no question NASCAR feels the impact of the Junior tide, up or down" with Earnhardt, recently 45th on BusinessWeek's 100 most marketable athletes and eighth in 2009 on the Harris Interactive list of America's top 10 favorite athletes, a list that included LeBron James, Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning.

And with NASCAR having announced a host of changes - from standardized start times to the return of a spoiler - intended to appease its fan base, an Earnhardt return to victory lane Sunday at Daytona, where he won in February 2004, would dovetail nicely with the sport's efforts to regain its lost buzz.

"You would feel it overnight," says Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns seven Cup tracks. "If he started winning, it would be awesome. His souvenir sales would double."

If Earnhardt doesn't rebound, though, the downside could be as damaging, according to some such as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing minority owner Felix Sabates, who says Earnhardt's "lack of winning the last two years have hurt the sport because everyone expected him to be the leader.

"He has not been the leader," Sabates says. "If he wants to be his father, he has to act like his father. If he doesn't, he needs to be a rock star and go pick a guitar somewhere and quit driving."

Vow of aggression

Somewhat reminiscent of his father's trademark bushy moustache, Earnhardt enters 2010 with a Paul Bunyan-esque beard ("just got tired of shaving") and an Intimidator-esque vow to be "ruthless from the first lap to the last" by being more aggressive and proactive making sure his car is capable of winning.

"I feel a lot of pressure from (the news media) or the public," he says. "You get headlines every offseason about what everybody expects you to do. Most of the time the headlines sting a little."

There were few such expectations when Earnhardt transitioned virtually overnight from making $180 a week as a mechanic at one of his father's Chevy dealerships to driving in the Nationwide Series for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He won championships in his first two full seasons (1998 and 1999) despite being "clueless about what the hell was going on. I was at the circus every day. It was awesome. I had no worries."

The comfort zone remained when he rose to Cup with DEI. He missed the Chase in two of its first four years, but the scrutiny wasn't as withering because, Earnhardt says, he "had plenty of excuses" as the most decorated driver on a midlevel team that never won a title.

It has changed since his 2008 arrival at Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR's all-time winningest team with 12 championships and 188 victories. Exacerbating the struggles was that Martin, whose No. 5 Impalas were built alongside Earnhardt's No. 88 by the same crewmen in the same building, had a career year. Hendrick's two four-time champions, Gordon and Johnson, worked harmoniously under one roof with crews that shared information and equally prepared cars.

That philosophy now is applied with greater force to Earnhardt, who has been reassigned the lead engineer from Martin's team in a personnel shuffle aimed at erasing dividing lines. Crew chiefs Alan Gustafson (Martin) and Lance McGrew (who replaced Tony Eury Jr. as Earnhardt's team leader in June) were tasked by owner Rick Hendrick with infusing their shop with symbiosis.

"I want to be able to walk into the pits on Sunday morning, call an audible and say, 'Take the seat out of Mark's car and put it in Jun ior's,' " Hendrick says. "That's how seamless I want this. This is going to work or I'm going to die trying. I fear failure more than I want to win. I never want the fans or Dale thinking I didn't do everything I could."

Enjoying comforts of life

Nurturing suits Earnhardt, an introvert who admits to playing Call of Duty with online buddies frequently until 2 a.m. and jokes he could live happily in a tent if connected to a T1 line and a computer. At DEI, he was backed by men and women he had known since childhood and who were friends as well as co-workers. It has been challenging to form the same bonds at Hendrick, a company of 500-plus employees.

"Dale's definitely a person of comfort," says his older sister, Kelley. "He thrives most when he's in a situation of familiarity."

That familial atmosphere permeates JR Motorsports, the Nationwide Series team co-owned by Earnhardt, his cousin Eury Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt. Among the 85 staffers, a dozen (including Earnhardt's mother, Brenda) are related to management.

Though their father had plans to bequeath DEI to them (ownership instead passed to his widow, Teresa), the siblings created their own organization four years ago that could be elevated to Sprint Cup in the near future.

Earnhardt says he's committed to driving for Hendrick through the end of his contract in 2012, but Waltrip believes Earnhardt eventually might drive for himself at JRM and perhaps switch to the No. 3 that his father made famous. Waltrip says either move would provide a necessary spark.

"He's in a rut, professionally and personally," he says. "He doesn't have the same assertiveness that his dad had. That's no knock on him. He just needs a swift kick in the pants to say, 'Come on, dude. Let's go.' "

But how much of a jolt might his success deliver NASCAR? Longtime promoter H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler says the recent relaxing of rules, including allowing drivers greater latitude in banging fenders without penalty, might be as important as a resurgence because if Earnhardt "wins five races, and they're dull, it won't do anything. . . . But (the rule changes) also might help put him in the winner's circle again."

Regardless, Earnhardt's slump hasn't curtailed his plans to race until 50 while seeking the unique opportunities that bring NASCAR to the masses. He was the first driver to be featured in Rolling Stone and on MTV's Cribs.

"I would like to think I've put this sport in front of a lot of people that would have never seen it," he says. "Once my career is finished, there'll be enough statistics on paper for people to be pleased or satisfied.

"I hope that my impact was felt far more in other areas."

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