Ju­nior’s got a new car and some­thing left to prove

Earn­hardt ready to prove doubters wrong with win

The Covington News - - Sports - By Jim Litke

DAY­TONA BEACH, Fla. — If sen­ti­ment could fuel a race car, Dale Earn­hardt Jr. would win the 50th run­ning of The Great Amer­i­can Race by a heart­beat.

NASCAR boss Brian France wants it to hap­pen be­cause Ju­nior is the fran­chise. He said just that last month, call­ing Earn­hardt the sport’s Los An­ge­les Lak­ers.

“We’re no dif­fer­ent than that. If Dale Jr. has a big year,” France said with typ­i­cal un­der­state­ment dur­ing his state-ofthe-state speech, “that will help.”

Fox wants it be­cause ev­ery time Dale Sr.’s sec­ond son and name­sake wins, the nee­dle on the TV rat­ings box jumps. And Ju­nior’s fans, the sport’s big­gest tribe by far, want it to prove his drought is less about be­ing over­rated than driv­ing un­der­pow­ered cars the last few years at DEI. Heck, even a few of his ri­vals in the be­lea­guered U.S. auto in­dus­try wouldn’t mind see­ing Ju­nior pull his Chevy into Vic­tory Lane, if only be­cause that means a Toy­ota won’t win.

The Ja­panese cars look es­pe­cially for­mi­da­ble in just their sec­ond year of com­pet­ing at NASCAR’s top level, stok­ing fears that dom­i­nance in the show­rooms could ex­tend to the race­track.

None of them, though, have any­thing on Ju­nior.

Earn­hardt has a new team, a new car, a new spon­sor and plenty to prove. Noth­ing would sig­nal a cleaner break from the past bet­ter than win­ning NASCAR’s Su­per Bowl a sec­ond time, right af­ter join­ing Hendrick Mo­tor­sports on the re­bound from DEI, the team his fa­ther cre­ated and left for his third wife and widow, Teresa, to run as she pleases.

“It makes you feel like you’ve got to be the luck­i­est guy on the

face of the earth,” Earn­hardt said. “There ain’t a guy out there that wouldn’t trade to be in this po­si­tion. I know that.

“I’m get­ting ready to drive Hendrick cars — best cars in the busi­ness, most pop­u­lar driver— and I’m on the mind of the head dude? That’s where you want to be,” he added, “other than hold­ing the cham­pi­onship tro­phy.”

NASCAR is at a cross­roads, strug­gling with sag­ging TV rat­ings and sell­ing out fewer venues. Man­ag­ing the sport’s ex­plo­sive growth has proven ev­ery bit as tricky as achiev­ing it, with nearly ev­ery change, from the launch of a play­off sys­tem to the crack­down on driv­ers’ con­duct, draw­ing yowls from old-school fans.

But a win by Ju­nior could help bridge that gap, too. For all the talk about the good old days, the re­al­ity is that the rac­ing has never been more com­pet­i­tive.

The Day­tona 500 pro­duces more passes than most. Re­stric­tor-plate races limit ev­ery car’s horse­power, a fea­ture that makes for close rac­ing and plenty of draft­ing and bump­ing. The fin­ish of last year’s race might have been the best last lap since the boot­leg­gers and back­woods­men moved the cir­cus from ram­shackle dirt ovals to as­phalt su­per­speed­ways.

Dale Sr., per­haps the best re­stric­tor-plate racer ever, was killed in a last-lap crash in 2001, in the de­but race of NASCAR’s first na­tional TV con­tract with Fox. In­stead of damp­en­ing in­ter­est in what was still a niche sport, that tragedy, and the en­su­ing de­bate it touched off over the safety of stock-car rac­ing, only stoked it. But al­though most of Se­nior’s fans seam­lessly made the segue to Ju­nior’s camp, he hasn’t won any­thing mean­ing­ful since the sum­mer of 2006.

So the move to Hendrick Mo­tor­sports has al­ready paid off with vic­to­ries in the Bud­weiser Shootout and a qual­i­fy­ing race at Day­tona this week. But un­less Ju­nior adds to­day’s crown jewel to his haul, it’s go­ing to be a tougher sell than ever.

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