Weight of the world

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Perhaps NASCAR should find a spot somewhere on the grounds of its new Hall of Fame in Charlotte, or, more appropriately, on a pedestal rising from Lake Norman -- where all those young race car drivers can see it from their lakeside homes -- for its own symbolic rendition of one man hefting the unyielding weight for all.

He'd be clad in a green and white firesuit, have a day's growth on his chin and possess a look in his eye reminiscent of his daddy's, when he held NASCAR aloft for so many years.

With prosperity and meteoric growth no longer a foregone conclusion in NASCAR, everyone, including the sport's leaders, is finally willing to say out loud what it has quietly known since Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the most important man in the sport. And the sport needs him to succeed.

"He's our Michael Jordan from a marketing standpoint. ... To have him successful, is, I think, good across the board for the sport," said Mark Dyer, president of Motorsport Authentics, and former NASCAR vice president of marketing.

That wasn't the feeling only a few years ago, when NASCAR chairman Brian France almost touted the fact that the Chase for the Championship, the 10-race playoff format that had left the sport's most popular drivers -- Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon -- at the station in 2005 would work just fine with or without the sport's biggest stars. The sport was the thing, not the men.

Earnhardt Jr., suffering at Dale Earnhardt Inc., under an increasingly unproductive professional and personal relationship with his team owner/stepmother, Teresa, missed the Chase again in '07, an event not as easily dismissed with concerns rising over sinking television ratings and stagnant attendance at some races.

It would be impossible to make a definitive connection between the two events, but NASCAR officials know Earnhardt Jr. is good for business, and business could be better right now. Still, it came as somewhat of a surprise when France began suggesting in recent weeks that an improvement in Earnhardt Jr.'s performance -- he's winless in 62 points races dating to May 2006 -- could be fortifying to a series that sees itself as laid on bedrock.

Atlas, make that Junior, had shrugged. And NASCAR needed him to pick the sport back up.

"He's the marquee driver that we have, no different than a marquee franchise that other sports enjoy," France said at his annual state-of-the-sport address in January. "If Dale Jr. has a big year, that will help. He's got the biggest fan base. It will energize that fan base, no question. ... He's got to earn that. I don't think anybody wants to have success any more than he does. If he does, it will benefit us."

Gordon, himself a titan of fan appeal and one of the sports's true mainstream commodities, recognized early the force of Earnhardt Jr.'s power, feeling the wrath of thousands of his fans and the thwack of their beer cans on his race car after winning on Earnhardt Jr.'s virtual home turf at Talladega. Gordon opined in '03 that the ever-improving Earnhardt Jr. had a potential no other driver in the sport had: "If he wins the [Sprint Cup] championship -- game over for anybody else. We're not even going to exist out there." -- if he ever married high-level success with his already stampeding appeal.

A 17-race winner in eight full seasons, Earnhardt Jr. has finished third ('03) and fifth twice each in the points race, and would seem to finally be ready to make everyone else disappear after joining Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports, which won 18 of 36 races last season and helped Jimmie Johnson win a second-consecutive championship.

Gordon, a four-time champion who is sixth on the all-time wins list (but just four wins from third), could be forgiven a grudge over the prospect of his accomplishments being overshadowed by a driver with only two Nationwide Series titles. But the 36-year-old is cunning enough to know Earnhardt Jr. isn't raiding his fan base, all the while enriching everyone in the garage.

"Junior has had to work hard," said Gordon, now Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate. "He recognizes how much that name helped him, but the fact that he moved to Hendrick says that he doesn't want to be known for his name, he wants to be known for what he can do in the race car, so I respect that, and you know what? If it makes the sport healthier and stronger, then I am going to benefit from that as well, and all of us are."

But Earnhardt Jr. steadfastly refuses to shoulder the weight. Or, at least, admit to the need for it.

"The sport doesn't ride on my shoulders," he said. "Jeff Burton said it best: If we weren't here tomorrow, there are guys in this sport who would carry the sport to wherever it goes, and it would continue to do great things and there would be personalities that come into this sport after most of us are gone that will be as crazy and as good and bad.

"I don't know why I [was] chosen to be in this situation but I thank the Lord for it every day and I'm really lucky. I've won some great races. I grew up watching my daddy win all those races and I didn't think I would ever be able to do it. So every one I win, I enjoy it like it's the last. I just feel real lucky that I got the opportunity to be in good stuff and live how I want to live. I've got it made."

Amazingly, a man who was born into celebrity and won the devotion of a national fan base before winning much on the track seems to still be surprised by just how much every word he utters echoes throughout the sport, how every move resonates. Indeed, he seemed bewildered not only by the ramifications of his messy, emotional departure from DEI, but also by the power he and sister/business manager Kelley Earnhardt Elledge wielded in finding a new team and sponsors to back him.

The pressure he'll admit to is often applied by himself, and concerns his responsibilities to those he keeps closest. As for everything else, he seems to exude a sense of freedom in making it so far while having been content where he started.

"When I was working in a dealership, I'd been working there three and a half years," said Earnhardt. "I was 23; I didn't think I was going to become a race car driver because I was a little late. Jeff Gordon was already winning championships at 26. I wasn't even in the series. So I was thinking, 'Hey, Junior, you're going to be a mechanic. All right, your dad's a seven-time champion, and this is you." I was fine with it. We went to the Christmas parties. I took pride in keeping my bay clean, and that's where my focus was."

Now that focus is on revealing himself as an elite winner -- and to have fun doing it -- in a class with teammates Jimmie Johnson and Gordon.

The early signs have been promising for all involved. In Junior's heavily anticipated debut on Saturday in the non-points-paying Budweiser Shootout, television ratings jumped by 5.1 percent from last year. He obliged the hopeful with a victory and a whetted appetite, not only for his first points win in nearly two years, but also his first Daytona 500 victory since '04. And a victory in the 50th installment of the race would be worth its weight in golden diecasts.

Just ask Dyer. The predecessor of his company -- which is now owned jointly by International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc. -- was founded in 1992, when executive Fred Wagenhals mortgaged his condominium to pay the advance needed to secure the exclusive right to sell Dale Earnhardt merchandise. After Earnhardt Jr.'s departure from DEI, ISC chief operating officer John Saunders said during a conference call with financial analysts in October that "the primary contributor" to an eventual $43-million loss "was associated with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s decision to leave DEI" because "this resulted in significant reduction and cancellations of pending and anticipated merchandise orders."

But now that the product-moving son of the king of product-movers has switched teams, car numbers (8 to 88) and sponsors (Budweiser to Amp and the National Guard), Dyer expects him to command even more of the collectibles market than his typical 20-plus-percent.

"This year [there] is a huge pent-up demand for a new program," Dyer said. "But certainly he is the largest, most successful in the sport. He has been for a number of years." Dyer added that any driver win has a "double-digit effect" on their sales, and Earnhardt Jr.'s "tailwind" has represented "an extra blessing."

A record sales week is a real possibility, believes Dyer, so the challenge now is keeping up with demand once fans begin arriving at Daytona International Speedway en masse on Thursday. Though five of 27 official merchandise trailers sell only Earnhardt Jr. products, MA has blazed a virtual supply line from its vendor factories in China to its headquarters in Concord, N.C., and down the highway system to Daytona Beach.

That means Earnhardt Jr. is, by proxy, keeping Chinese diecast factories humming, freighter lines in business and longshoremen employed. He could also be contributing to a weakened U.S. dollar, Chinese dominance in the manufacturing sector and global warming, but he can't fix everything.

"It's not just the winning," Dyer said, "but the Dale Jr. we're seeing [is] such a positive message for everyone in the sport. He's not going to win every race, but this guy is back. He's having fun. And I just think that is just a big deal for all of us in this sport."