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Earnhardt Jr. Stirring Emotions And Hopes In 2013

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 16 2013

After an impressive 2012 Sprint Cup season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans seem confident that their man will have an even better 2013 season. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent

MESA, Ariz. – Geordie Wendt braved rush-hour traffic earlier this week for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rub shoulders with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Minutes before Earnhardt would make an appearance at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill on behalf of Phoenix International Raceway and the upcoming March 3 Subway Fresh Fit 500, Wendt stood alongside a wall with his two small children, all of them hoping to somehow snatch a peek of their NASCAR hero.

Son Nathaniel, 3, decked out in a mini-Earnhardt driving uniform, held tightly onto his father’s hand.

“I heard (Earnhardt) was going to be here and I mentioned it to my son,” the elder Wendt said. “He (Nathaniel) said we should go and ‘maybe we could see him in person.’ ”

Minutes later, the Wendt’s got their wish.

Following several media sessions in a private room, Earnhardt emerged and Nathaniel went bonkers.

Wendt isn’t surprised.

“I didn’t become a NASCAR fan until just about the time of (Dale Sr.’s) death (in 2001, the result of a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500) so I wasn’t really a hard-core Dale Sr. fan,” Wendt said. “But I became a fan of (Dale Jr.) because of his personality.

“From what you see of him publicly, it’s kind of hard not to like him. He seems real laid back and easy going. He seems like a regular guy you can hang out with.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has new car and nice momentum. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

Always approachable, Earnhardt seems especially chipper these days after snapping a miserable four-year winless streak last season with a June breakthrough at Michigan International Speedway.

Although Earnhardt finished 12th in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship in 2012, he led the points race for much of the season before a concussion forced him to miss two Chase races.

ESPN analysts Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett both expect even more improvement from Earnhardt this season, thanks in part to a new Chevrolet SS replacing the retired Cars of Tomorrow.

“He’s not going to regress at all,” Wallace said. “He’s going to improve. The reason I say that is because of this brand new car. The best teams are going to figure it out the quickest.

“But I also like Dale Jr.’s focus and the way he and (crew chief) Steve Letarte are working right now. He kicked everybody’s (butt) at Michigan last year. He didn’t get lucky. He went out and beat them.

“I think I’m expecting even more victories out of him this year.”

So is Jarrett.

“I think three wins is certainly not out of the question,” Jarrett said. “And I really think he’s going to battle for the championship again. I’m not saying he’s going to win, but I think he’s in the mix.

“You saw how he stepped up last year and I think he’s excited about this new car. The information I have in talking to different drivers is the new car isn’t back to the old cars pre-2007, but it’s much closer than what the latest (COT) was. I think that’s going to benefit some people, Junior being one of them.”

Earnhardt thinks so, steadfastly believing his name should be prominently mentioned in this season’s championship contender’s list.

“We were in that conversation throughout most of last season as being one of the top teams and most consistent teams,” Earnhardt said. “We led the points, we were in the top five in points most of the year. I think we can be in that conversation again…

“I’d love to improve on what we did last year. We had a pretty good year throughout most of the regular season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. looking for improvement in 2013. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

I’m happy with how the speed was in the car every week. We were making a lot of good choices and decisions as a team every week. We’ve improved each year we’ve (he and Letarte, who become Earnhardt’s crew chief in 2011) been together and I don’t see why that should be any different coming up this year. My expectation is that we’re going to top what we did last year.”

If so, that would be good news for NASCAR, Fox Sports and Speed analyst Darrell Waltrip said.

“I’m like two-thirds of NASCAR fans and everybody else,” Waltrip said. “You expect Dale Jr. to win races and to be in contention for championships. I don’t know if that’s expectation or hope. I think it’s a combination of the two. We all want to see Jr. do well. He’s such a good guy, a good young man and a good representative of the sport. You like to see a guy with those kinds of credentials do well.

“All of us in the sport, whether in the media or the grandstand, we all kind of pull for Dale Jr. because it would be really good for him if he was a little more successful. It’s not from a lack of trying. He’s got the resources and I don’t think it’s from a lack of ability.

“I just think the pressure he has on him all the time to perform at an extraordinarily high level based on what his dad did, I personally feel it gets in his way.”

PIR president Bryan Sperber isn’t certain such pressure works as an Earnhardt roadblock. But Sperber also realizes no one but Earnhardt can provide an answer to such a question.

“I can’t sit here today and say I know what’s going on inside Dale’s world,” Sperber said. “But as an observer from the outside, it looks like to me the guy is having fun now. I think he’s really comfortable with his position in the sport.

“Like any sport, whether it’s basketball or football, when those stars relax, they play their best. I hope that’s what is in store for Dale this season and seasons to come…

“He already is arguably the biggest name in NASCAR and it would be hard to argue against that. So how much bigger can big get? That’s really what we’re talking about. Clearly, his dad raised the bar and I think Junior has the opportunity to be his own man in his own right and be every bit as big as his dad.

“(But) what happens on the track is super important to that and that remains to be seen.”

Should Earnhardt delivers a super season in 2013, one that begins Feb. 24 in the season-opening Daytona 500, Wendt has an idea what he’ll see.

“If that happens, should he win a few more races and the title, I think we’re going to see a lot of people going bananas. And I’m sure NASCAR would be really happy about that.”

Before departing Arizona, Earnhardt also added some thoughts on other queried subjects such as…

On the Gen-6 Chevrolet

“We did struggle with the COT. The car and me rarely were on the same page. But we did actually turn the COT into a pretty decent race car after a few years with it. The new car is really the same chassis with the splitter pretty much in the same place. But there’s a lot of things different on the body that I think I’m going to like that sort of nod back to the older car.”

On being the face of NASCAR

“I always feel like there’s a lot of good personalities in the sport and they do a good job of representing the sport in their own way. There’s guys from all over the country. We used to be a Southern sport, but I think I’m the last one from North Carolina.”

On Austin Dillon one day possibly using the No. 3 in the Cup series

“I think he’s a good kid, lots of fun to be around. He’s young and brash. I think it would be unfair to Austin to

Austin Dillon in the 3? No problem, Earnhardt Jr. says. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

deprive him of that number. He’s carried that number since he started racing. Richard (Childress, Austin’s grandfather and Dale Sr.’s car owner for six of his seven championship runs) ran that number a lot in his career before my father ever thought about driving it. I know when you think about my father you think about the No. 3 and people always will, and I will, too. But there’s other people that the number means something to. I don’t think it’s a crazy idea for a guy like Austin, if he gets to the next level, to use that number. I stand behind what Austin would want because he’s used the number himself and the number was in his grandfather’s family long before it was in mine.”

On concussions being a less taboo subject in the garage

“Not really. I don’t think (my concussion) changed it much. Drivers, especially a guy that hasn’t went through it, is going to be tight-lipped about it. I wasn’t educated about it and was shocked by some of the things I learned. I definitely have more respect (after) being in that situation. But if you haven’t been through that and you don’t know anything about t, it certainly isn’t something that a lot of guys would want to be in conversation about.”

On whether it would be like dating a competitor such as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick now dating

“That would be quite a complex relationship, I’m sure. I can’t imagine that.”

– Mark Armijo is the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Arizona Republic newspaper in Phoenix and a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 16 2013
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