Junior willing for 'big role'

SportsNASCARAuto RacingDale Earnhardt, Jr.Daytona 500Mark MartinJeff Gordon

Dale Earnhardt Jr. never wanted to be the voice of NASCAR, the one getting all the questions and shouldering the responsibility for speaking for teammates, colleagues and everyone else in the garage.

"I just wanted to drive, but that's not all there is to it," Earnhardt said.

Not even close.

Earnhardt has figured that out, evidenced by all he's done leading up the Daytona 500. He took track promoters to task, suggested ways to make races more affordable to fans and even offered to drive for free if his team needed to cut costs in a foundering economy.

NASCAR's most popular driver the last six years, the guy who gained instant fame because of his iconic father and grandfather, reluctantly has accepted his position atop the sport.

"I feel like I take a big role in this sport," Earnhardt said. "I am glad to be part of this sport. I am glad to represent the sport, either on my good days or my bad days. I love being a part of it, and whatever I got to shoulder that I feel is fair, I am fine with. If it isn't fair, I am not fine with it."

Lately, Earnhardt has found more unfair.

He ripped track promoters last week for demanding more of drivers' time to help sell tickets. Bruton Smith, chairman of track conglomerate Speedway Motorsports Inc., and his chief lieutenant, Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, criticized drivers for not helping create buzz and fill seats.

"That's not true," Earnhardt said. "We're constantly doing things every week for this guy and that guy to help racetracks. ... They gotta take a little responsibility for themselves."

Earnhardt's annoyance started in the off-season, when promoters at Memphis Motorsports Park offered Earnhardt free ribs for life from the track-sponsored barbecue restaurant if he competed in their Nationwide race. Earnhardt was upset they didn't ask him if they could use his name.

He also took exception with billboards in Texas and Las Vegas that offered rewards for something Earnhardt does on the track.

"I like those kind of things, but damn, you know, notify us a little bit," he said. "Let's get a little more creative."

He thought track owners should do more to try to help fans, too. He suggested they buy or build hotels, so the tracks can control the rising cost of rooms during race events. It's a farfetched notion, but it shows how much Earnhardt wants to see change in a sport struggling to sell tickets at nearly every racing venue.

"I just wish it was easier to go see a race, and I want the fans to have whatever they want," Earnhardt said. "You remember how it was 10 years ago? It seemed like nobody was really complaining about little things like camper parking and traffic, the cost of a parking pass for the infield. Now, these are big issues for some reason. They have to figure out how to fix that."

Some thought his move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports before last season might prevent him from ever taking on a leadership role. Would team owner Rick Hendrick try to turn Earnhardt into a clone of clean-cut, rarely controversial drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon?

"From the very first time we talked, I told him, 'Be yourself. We want you to be comfortable being you and we won't change you,' " Hendrick said. "That's what the attraction is to him. When you get around him, you find out what a neat person he is and you find out why the people gravitate toward him.

"This sport needs him. The sport needs him to be Junior, and what really impresses me about him is if you try to insinuate that he needs to be like his daddy, he'll tell you quickly, 'I'm not my daddy. He's one guy and I'm somebody else.' He's real comfortable in his skin."

It wasn't always that way.

Junior didn't want to be responsible for speaking for anyone other than himself. But when your last name is Earnhardt — his father was seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt and his grandfather was short-track sensation Ralph Earnhardt — you don't really have a choice.

Everyone in the garage area looks to him to lead the way.

"I am not telling anyone how to do their job," Earnhardt said. "I have an opinion and you all asked me what it was. If people agree, they agree. If they don't agree, then they don't agree. I am not the damn voice of reason by no means."

Maybe not, but new teammate Mark Martin said Earnhardt has "the broadest, strongest shoulders of anybody probably ever in NASCAR."

Earnhardt might be able to ease the load with a championship. He has 18 Cup victories in nine full seasons, but has just three wins the last four years.

With all the hype that surrounded his move to Hendrick last season, in many ways he failed to meet expectations. He made the Chase for the championship (started fourth) but finished 12th.

Earnhardt feels much more comfortable this season and believes that if a few things go his way, the voice of NASCAR could become a champion of NASCAR.

"We kind of have an idea that we are a pretty good team," he said. "We make a few adjustments, do some things right, catch a few breaks and we are a great team. We are going to try and make that happen this year. I feel pretty comfortable though, no real worries."

Daytona schedule Thursday• Duel 150-mile qualifying races, 2 p.m., Speed Channel.• Truck Series race qualifying, 6 p.m., Speed Channel.Friday• Nationwide Series race qualifying, 3 p.m., ESPN2.• Truck Series race, 8 p.m., Speed Channel.Saturday• Nationwide Series race, 1:15 p.m., ESPN2.Sunday• Daytona 500, 3:30 p.m., coverage starts on Fox 35 43 at 2 p.m.Online We debut NASCAR Central, your spot on the Web for Cup coverage, results and news. Visit dailypress.com/nascarcentral for the latest.

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