MOORESVILLE, North Carolina -- With just a few weeks remaining until the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, a massive throng descended upon Hendrick Motorsports as part of the annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. And that meant, once again, that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was in the spotlight.
With separate interview stations set up for team owner Rick Hendrick, reigning four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and ageless wonder Mark Martin, the biggest crowd was gathered around Earnhardt, despite the fact that he finished a woeful 25th in last year's standings.
In NASCAR, popularity doesn't necessarily go to the top-performing driver but to the most interesting. And to the throng of race fans, there is no more popular driver than Earnhardt, proving that perceived personality is more intriguing than Johnson's corporate machine-like championship dominance.
But as the 2010 season is about to begin, Earnhardt wants his results to match his popularity. "I want to compete and match the progress and success the rest of the company is having," he said. "I want to be at that level. Sometimes you get worn down and tired of trying to explain what happened. I dug that pit and I have to lay in it, I guess."
At one time, Earnhardt was closing in on the level currently occupied by Johnson, Gordon and Martin. Just 10 years ago, he was the big-name rookie on the scene and it wouldn't be long before he was enjoying the fruits of popularity, even though Matt Kenseth won Rookie of the Year in 2000. His famous last name made him popular with the old-line race fans, but his refreshing, youthful approach connected with the "Generation X" crowd. Young Earnhardt was considered cool with fans who listened to alternative as well as those who tlistened to country.
When he started to win the big races, at Daytona and Talladega, he was considered to be a championship contender in the making. But with just one Cup victory since May 2006, he's now an example of unrealized potential. While he remains NASCAR's most popular driver, he also finds himself the subject of tremendous scrutiny and speculation, ranging from his poor results on the track to his party boy image off of it.
"We dug our own ditch with how we ran last year, but I did build my own house which left me a little bit of a target," Earnhardt said. "At 35, with two Nationwide Series championships, 18 career Cup wins, a Daytona 500 win, an All-Star win, I could build a house as big as I feel like building, I guess. For the countryside I live in, it's a pretty big house. You get a little bit of a grace period when you are younger, but the older you get, you have to put up with people telling you what you may not want to hear."
Earnhardt realizes that the media have a tremendous influence on how he is portrayed to the public. "I've been myself and I feel like I've been genuine," he said. "I've always been honest and thought about your question before giving my answer. The media wraps the package and gives it to the fans. The fans can make the choice whether they like it or not, and you will have people on either side -- people who have some crap to say about you. I asked to be in this position. I wanted to be a race car driver and I have a famous last name. That goes with the territory."
The "Dale Jr. Territory" is unique to say the least. His new house is near Mooresville, which bills itself as "Race City, USA" because of the large number of NASCAR teams in the area. Earnhardt picks and chooses the times he goes out in public.
"Dale Jr. waits until two in the morning to go shopping at Wal-Mart," says his sister, Kelley -- who also happens to be the president of JR Motorsports, a NASCAR Nationwide Series team co-owned by the Earnhardts and cousin Tony Eury, Jr. that will field IZOD IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick in a limited number of races this year. "Some of the other shoppers are surprised to see him in there and pictures of Dale Jr. have even appeared on the Wal-Mart website."
Earnhardt considers himself just an ordinary, average guy. "Every day I walk by people who don't recognize me," Earnhardt said. "I do everything everybody else does. I played Call of Duty until two in the morning last night with people all over the country. There are six buddies of mine who know me from the internet just by playing video games. They don't give me no crap about it. For me, this is normal, but to y'all, I don't know what the fascination is, personally."
Earnhardt benefits from the loyalty of Junior Nation fans. Unconditional love is a common characteristic. No matter how good or how bad his season is, he has more fans than any other driver in the sport.
"It goes back to loyalty," he said. "It's been difficult to be a Dale Jr. fan the last couple of years, but every year something happens that you hope will be a catalyst. Every year they hold out hope. We've given them reason [to believe] that we have some potential."
Earnhardt is anxious to get started in 2010. He's ready to drive what he calls "complete races" where he's good from start-to-finish rather than sporadic performances like the ones that have marked his last four years. He believes that if he can do that, the top-five finishes and victories are bound to come and put him back on the path to deserving the spotlight that shines on him so brightly -- and, at times, harshly.
"I hate talking about last year; it was miserable, but that was how I ran," he said. "I have to own up to all of that stuff. But I miss the track, I miss the car, I miss the environment and all those people. I feel fortunate every year I get to go back. We go through transitions in our careers where we have success and failures, and we'll deal with adversity. When it is all said and done, everybody will be cool."
The reasons are drastically different, but no two men in pro sports fell from grace more dramatically last year than golfer Tiger Woods and former IndyCar Series czar Tony George. Some may call George's decision to resign from the board of directors of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation the end of an era, but Jeff Belskus, who replaced George and president and CEO last June, calls it something else.
"It is a new day here," Belskus said. "This is between Tony and his family and I'm disappointed it has come to this. Does it surprise me? Yes. But in another way, no. Obviously, they are in a difficult place right now with their relationship. It was between him and his family. I don't sit at that table, so I'm not sure what all the conversation is regarding that."
It may be a new day in terms of George not being involved in how business is conducted, but the speedway will remain the property of the Hulman-George Family. It wasn't long after the news of his resignation that rumors began to circulate that the historic track was ready to be sold to another entity, such as the International Speedway Corporation (ISC). Belskus could not be more emphatic in stating that is not the case.
"The track is absolutely not for sale," he said. "I chuckle whenever I hear ISC is going to buy IMS, because it's not for sale. I get asked that question a lot."
But George's decision to walk away is the latest indication of the schism between him and his sisters Josie, Nancy and Kathi. The three were able to band together and remove their brother from power on the family-controlled board chaired by their mother, Mari Hulman George. Belskus, however, said George's departure will not affect the speedway.
"On a day-to-day basis, this doesn't really affect us because he was not a part of our day-to-day management," Belskus explained. "Boards provide oversight, and that interaction will be missed and we are sorry he has chosen not to participate at that level."
Belskus and George have known each other since they were growing up in Terre Haute, Indiana. While George was an heir to the Hulman family's business involvement, Belskus came to Indy speedway in 1987. George was a man of true vision when he charted the course of IndyCar racing in the 1990s although his critics believed that vision was badly blurred. Some may argue that his reasons for starting the Indy Racing League were well-founded, but it created a bitter split in the sport that began in 1996 with the rival CART Series.
But it was also George who brokered the deal that brought unification in February 2008. At that time, he appeared ready to lead IndyCar back to prominence, but by the end of May 2009, his sisters had stripped him of his power. His only involvement now in the IZOD IndyCar Series is as team owner of Vision Racing, which was trying to keep Menard's as the sponsor. With no deal in place, George was forced to suspend operation.
George may not have been the best businessman in racing because he was better at spending money than making it, but he showed true passion IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500 in particular. In 2010, IndyCar is in desperate need of that passion, in spite of the fact that its style of racing remains exciting. It has some engaging personalities and a willing corporate sponsor in IZOD.
That is what makes George's decision to walk away as sad as it is perplexing.
Quote of the week
"We are going to have an eye on putting things back in the driver's hands. They are going to mix it up a little bit differently because we are going to loosen it up." -- NASCAR CEO Brian France on the sanctioning body's agenda for 2010.
Quote of the week, II
"We will put it back in the hands of the drivers and we will say `Boys, have at it and have a good time.' That's all I can say." -- NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton.