January 25, 2008

CONCORD, North Carolina -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always been able to steal the spotlight as NASCAR's most popular driver and his latest concern is not about upholding that tradition. Rather, subduing Earnhardt's tendency to overshadow his new teammates at Hendrick Motorsports remains at the forefront of his, and his team's, priority list.

Earnhardt's arrival at NASCAR Sprint Cup, racing's most successful team has created a unique situation where a driver with far fewer accomplishments receives more attention than some of the sport's greatest drivers.

Jimmie Johnson's bid for a third-straight Cup championship and Jeff Gordon's quest for a fifth series championship have become sidebar events to the main story of Earnhardt's first season with NASCAR's super team.

And that has left Earnhardt, the icon of the sport in terms of popularity and cult-hero status, feeling uneasy.

"There have been a lot of references to me coming over here, and it has taken over the headlines," Earnhardt said. "I'm uncomfortable with that. I don't want those guys to resent me for that. I'm just trying to come in here and do well."

Earnhardt is sensitive to the issue and that has him taking a deferential role at his new employer.

He is cognizant of the fact that, by the numbers, he doesn't deserve to be the star attraction when compared to Johnson and Gordon.

Johnson owns 33 race victories and two series titles in just seven seasons. And last season along, he won 10 races last season to become the first driver with double-digit victories in the Cup since Gordon won 13 in 1998.

Gordon has 81 race victories, along with his four Cup titles, spread across a career that began with the final race of the 1992 season. Last season, he picked up six wins and finished second behind Johnson.

While Earnhardt boasts 17 race victories in nine seasons, he doesn't have a single Cup championship to his name. In fact, his highest finish in the standings was third (2003), but he finished 19th in 2005 and 16th last season.

And last year, Earnhardt was winless, extending a slump that start after his Richmond win may 6, 2006. Even Casey Mears, the forgotten driver at Hendrick, scored his first victory last year in the Coca-Cola 600.

There's good reason why Earnhardt feels a bit uneasy. Reporters continue to crowd around him like the Paparazzi to Britney Spears, while Johnson and Gordon are seemingly pushed aside in the public conscience.

"I don't want to give them the opinion that I'm trying to steal the limelight when those guys are deserving of it," Earnhardt said. "Jimmie is a champion, has been the champion the last two years. The big story going into the season should be whether he is going to three-peat.

"For me to have not won a race last year and be a page ahead of him in the newspaper, it shouldn't be that way. That's not my intention. I just want to come in here and work and have them glad that I'm here and to have me as their teammate."

Now there are days when Gordon and Johnson will be glad to have Earnhardt taking the focus away from them because it gives them a chance to fly under the radar -- a rarity for drivers of that magnitude.

Earnhardt hopes to shed the image he had at Dale Earnhardt Inc., where he was built up as NASCAR's "Rock Star." He hung out with all the "cool people," wore his cap backwards and dressed as if he was going to a rave.

That approach, and attitude, made him popular among the fans and sponsors, but led to bitter resentment from his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt, the team owner of DEI who took charge after her husband, Dale Earnhardt's, fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

She questioned Dale Jr's desire, igniting a series of events that started with Earnhardt's departure from the team and his arrival at the most successful operation in NASCAR when team owner Rick Hendrick added another star driver to his championship operation.

"I didn't want to be there anymore," Earnhardt said of DEI. "It was part of the process to get to where I am now."

Earnhardt even appeared button-down and corporate at Hendrick Motorsports on Wednesday, wearing a long-sleeve white shirt, perfectly starched and pressed with the Hendrick logo, and a pair of black dress slacks.

But get this: his shirt was actually tucked in, unlike the Earnhardt tucked-out trademark and, for that matter, the style of the decade of the O's.

"The sponsors know what the deal is, what kind of sponsor I am, and the personality I have," Earnhardt said. "There is protocol. Sometimes you have to wear the suit and sometimes you get to wear whatever you want. I've got a boss like you and sometimes you have to listen to him. I hope to be the same person I am, but, of course I'm not going to do anything I don't want to do."

Earnhardt realizes with the constant glare of the spotlight comes the pressure to produce. Some of that pressure is from within, though.

There are no excuses this season because at Hendrick Motorsports, winning isn't a possibility, it's expected.

"I don't buy into it, I can drive," Earnhardt said. "I desperately want to get into victory lane as soon as I can because I miss that feeling. That was fun. I don't think I have to prove I'm a good race driver. I think I've already proven that. I've won some big races on the race track. Some people must have a short-term memory, I reckon."

Earnhardt wants to be considered one of the best drivers in NASCAR history, but realizes, in order to do that, he has to get back to victory lane and win a few championships.

He's already earned a Daytona 500 title (2004) -- and did so much quicker in his career than his father.

"I was relieved to have won it in my fifth year, to know for sure I wasn't going to have to go 20 years like my father," Earnhardt said. "I felt so lucky that I wouldn't be chasing it because it consumes you and it consumed my dad to chase that win."

But the biggest relief for Earnhardt will come from being considered a good teammate to Gordon, Johnson and Mears. He wants to be "one of the guys," but also remain respectful that his teammates retain their stature in the sport.

And Hendrick is ever mindful of that, continually stressing it to his drivers.

"There is a great quote by Abraham Lincoln and Rick has been using his version of it lately," Earnhardt explained. "Lincoln said about the country 'We wouldn't be attacked from abroad, beaten from abroad; we would be torn down from within.' That's how this place is. If we all didn't know it, we know it now that we are to get along and make sure that doesn't happen."

Hendrick has put together an all-star team, but knows that it can sometimes be a volatile mix of egos and personalities.

"I believe with all my heart what is going to make us good is working together and not having any fracture inside," Rick Hendrick said. "I think it automatically goes off in their head if they (don't work together), they will have to deal with me. Junior, so far, from what I've heard about him from before, about being late, about not wanting to do certain things, he's been the first guy with his hand up. He wants to do well and we want to see him do well. You see why he's so popular once you get to know him."

It seems as though Earnhardt has grown up, willing to put his status as NASCAR's most popular driver aside to be a good teammate and understand that when it comes to successful race drivers at Hendrick Motorsports, he is no better than third in line.

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