NASCAR & Auto Racing

The real bottom line for Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Working on winning

DALLAS, Texas – Of all the things said Wednesday as Dale Earnhardt Jr. officially revealed his new car number, new sponsors and new paint schemes, it was Earnhardt Jr. himself who hit what should be the day’s lasting message exactly right.

Following the formalities – he’ll drive the No. 88 Chevrolets at Hendrick Motorsports next year, with Amp Energy drink and Mountain Dew as the primary sponsor for 20 Cup races and the National Guard on it for 16 races – Earnhardt Jr. was asked why he thought his fans seemed to care so passionately about those kind of details.

“I don’t really understand that,” he said, “and I don’t really try. I just try to do my job on the track.”

Ultimately, that’s going to be the only thing that really matters.

Business is business, and there will be a lot written and said about that aspect of what could be the most lucrative deal in NASCAR history.

Educated guesses ranging upwards of $25 million a year for the sponsorship packages for the sport’s most popular driver. Pay days of millions more are on the line in merchandising, so much so that a cable home shopping network carried Wednesday’s press conference live.

The souvenir shop at JR Motorsports in Mooresville, N.C., stocked up overnight on an early batch of new shirts and caps and began selling as soon as the announcement came down. You can order your die-cast collectibles of the green-and-white and blue-and-white cars right now, but don’t expect delivery until at least the holiday season.

All of that is fine and dandy.

But the plain truth is that Skeeter’s Septic Tank Service could sponsor Earnhardt Jr. and his fans would buy shirts and hats with that on it.

Since Earnhardt Jr. decided to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. and longtime sponsor Budweiser, the only real questions was which team and which companies were going to win the honor of paying him scads of money and what new number would replace his No. 8 as the sport’s marketing icon.

What remains to be seen is the part of the equation that will ultimately decide whether all this is just so much ado about marketing. The ultimate measure of Earnhardt Jr.’s success won’t be how many replica cars he sells What matters is whether he can win races and contend for championships.

Earnhardt Jr. is selling souvenirs by the boatload now. He didn’t need to change teams to do that. What he hasn’t done since May of last season is win a race, and for the second time in three years he’s not in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

He’s moving because he thinks the best chance for him to improve his results on the track is to be with Hendrick Motorsports, and he knows that if he doesn’t have success there the backlash from such a failure will be brutal.

What makes Earnhardt Jr. so interesting is that he not only understands that, he completely embraces that challenge.

Wednesday was a big day for Earnhardt Jr.

He got up in North Carolina around 5 a.m. to fly to Dallas, joking that this gave him an opportunity to gauge how well the Amp Energy drink works. He got a big welcome from 1,500 or so Pepsi bottlers gathered for a meeting that was the reason this dog-and-pony show was held in Dallas, then came to meet the press and see, for the first time not on paper or a computer screen, what the cars he helped design looked like.

Through all of that, he was all smiles. Earnhardt Jr. was darned near giddy when he got to unveil the cars, about the look of which team owner Rick Hendrick said he discovered his new driver was a “nitpicker.”

Earnhardt Jr. clearly stated that he wants to focus on finishing strong as he closes out the year at DEI, and said he knows the season’s final day at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be emotional for him as he leaves some things behind that have meant a great deal to him in his career.

But the only time he set his jaw and really looked serious all day came when he looked forward to what’s next for him on the track – and not necessarily at all of the sport’s cash registers that he’ll be ringing.

“I can’t wait to get to work,” he said.

“I can’t wait to show everybody at Rick’s place how dedicated I am. I really can’t wait to get over there and prove myself.”

That is absolutely the only bottom line that really matters.

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