NASCAR & Auto Racing

It's clear that he wants to, but can Dale Jr. get over the hump?

Three weeks ago Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to the Sony complex in Los Angeles to shoot two Pepsi commercials.

Apparently because of the long-standing connection between NASCAR and desert animals with humps, Junior was asked to get on a camel named Lulu, who was said to be the most gentle of the camels in the building.

Junior was surprised to hear that Lulu was the most gentle. He thought that all camels were gentle. He also thought that camels were the size of horses.

But camels are bigger than horses and not all of them are nice. Junior, it turns out, did not know much about camels. In his defense, camels are rare in Kannapolis and in the greater Lake Normal area.

Junior climbed onto Lulu. And Lulu stood, back end first. At no point in 2008 will Junior clutch a steering wheel as tightly as he clutched that camel. He didn't know the back end rose first. It's not something people in his circle talk about.

The animal would sit -- front end first -- stand, sit and stand. And as nice as Lulu was said to be, there came a point at which she made a sound that implied anger. Junior hoped the anger was directed at something general, such as being born a camel, rather than at him.

Yet Junior didn't give up. Not only did he perform like John Travolta on the mechanical bull in "Urban Cowboy," he hung on long enough to rewrite the end of the commercial.

"It was insane," Junior says.

So don't talk to him about the pressure of driving for Hendrick Motorsports. Lulu was pressure. Hendrick is opportunity.

During a news conference Wednesday at Hendrick Motorsports, Junior is asked repeatedly about failure, and about risking failure.

He is risking failure. Junior is by far the most popular driver in the sport, and Hendrick runs what is by far NASCAR's most successful organization.

Should Junior fail, he'll be written off as an average driver with a famous name.

But that's a small, even minuscule, price to pay.

Remember the last time you craved a thing, and how thrilled you were when you got it?

That's where Junior is. He talks about walking into his shop and seeing the cars his new employer has provided and looking in the windows and admiring the craftsmanship.

"They're just so well prepared," he says. "And I just can't wait to get in there and get to work with them and drive them and go to the race tracks and practice here and practice there and try this track and go to that track."

If you believe in your ability, you need to know how good you are. At 33, Junior finally will find out.

He and his new teammates are sitting on a stage at the Hendrick complex, and every 12 seconds a slide is flashed on a big screen. Jimmie Johnson sees Junior on Lulu and asks, "A camel?"

Junior continues talking about 2008, pretending to ignore him. But Johnson won't let go.

"You'd be surprised at how much fun it was," Junior says. "If it gets me in the Super Bowl" -- the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- "I'll get on a camel."


Tom Sorensen

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