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Dale Earnhardt Jr. at 35: What's in the future?

   It's not easy being Dale Earnhardt's son, even now 10 years after the legend's death (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. sneak up on rivals this season and get back in the swing of things on the NASCAR trail?
   Well, it better happen quickly.
   The longer this winless streak goes on, the tougher it is to break it.
   Maybe this caveman beard he's sporting – "got tired of shaving" – will help change his luck....
   Earnhardt has won only once since the spring of 2006, and that was in a gas mileage finish at Michigan a couple years ago.
   His teammates, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, meanwhile, are tearing up the stock car circuit.
   Them's the cold, hard facts.
   That Shootout win his first time out with team owner Rick Hendrick here in 2008 made the marriage look solid. But things fizzled pretty quickly, and Earnhardt really hasn't caught fire yet.
   All the pieces are there, all the equipment, the crewmen, and crew chief Lance McGrew is a solid guy.
   So now it's all up to Earnhardt himself.
   Daytona SpeedWeeks is such a creature all to itself that even a win here, while certainly great for morale and all, might not signify a great change, Earnhardt himself concedes.
    "You've got to go to Fontana, Vegas, those places, and run good," Earnhardt says. "Even with a win, nobody is going to give us any credibility until we go to them other tracks and start running good. "
   And the Danica factor here? It's got to be some distraction this season, though unclear how much.
    "I only talked to Danica once in the last six months," Earnhardt says, saying he's leaving that project up to his sister Kelley and cousin/crew chief Tony Eury Jr. "Those are the people that are going to be in contact with her.
    "She don't need too many people in her ear talking to her, giving her too much crap to think about. 
    "She's been around racing a long time.  I think she's smart enough to know what she's gotten herself involved in. 
     "And she doesn't need everybody trying to tell her what's good for her. It annoys the heck out of me when I got six or seven people trying to tell me what is the right thing to do, what the next move is to make. 
    "I just hope we give her a good car, and when she mashes the gas, it puts a smile on her face. 
    "As long as she's having fun out on the racetrack, I'll enjoy that part of it."
   On Earnhardt's own side of the big picture, team owner Rick Hendrick has partnered the Earnhardt-McGrew operation with the Mark Martin-Alan Gustafson operation, and Gustafson's project this year is as much helping Earnhardt win again as anything.
     Of course one thing Earnhardt needs to do better right here is finding his spot on pit road. Last year, well, that part of the game wasn't very solid...
    So Earnhardt says he'll be "paying more attention when I'm coming down pit road...and try to do a better job of studying my pit box position, get a good idea of what that looks like, where it's at."
    At least that shouldn't be much of a factor in Saturday night's Shootout.
   In the 500 itself Earnhardt figures the eventual winner will have to run top-three most of the race. "I don't think you're going to have guys  sneaking up from the back (like Kevin Harvick did three years ago to win), just because of how hot and slick the track is going to be (with the earlier Sunday starting time)."
    But Johnson figures there will be a late-race caution that will really make-or-break the 500. 
   "If they get a short 10 lap run at the end, you might see some guy make something out of nothing," Earnhardt says. "But for the most part the race is going to come down to the top three guys, top five guys...just due to the clean air and trying to get the car around in traffic at that time of day -- a challenge."
    One challenge for Earnhardt naturally is living up to the name Earnhardt. At times last season that seemed to wear too heavily on him.
    "I feel about the same as I felt all last year," Earnhardt insists, in dismissing the pressure of being Dale Earnhardt's son.  "I've about got used to it. 
    "There's days, and moments, where you feel a lot of pressure.  But for the most part I get through the day without a lot of problems."
    Actually, standing back from this situation and looking at Earnhardt from a distance, he is really doing a fairly good job of dealing with it all.
    A little down in the dumps at times, yes. But he certainly understands where he is in this sport, and what he means to this sport, and what this sport means to him. Not every driver in the garage can say that.
     "I think I am intelligent and have a good point of view about the sport, a pretty good perspective from where I stand of what's happening," he says.
    "Obviously my heritage -- my father -- plays a big role in who wants to listen.  So I've had a pretty good rough patch...haven't won hardly any races in the last two to three years.  But you know I'm 35 years old, and if I wanted to, I could probably race another 15 years.  I've probably got a pretty good chance of putting together another season like I had in 2004 sometime in that span. 
     "Once my career's finished and over with, there will be enough statistics for people to be pleased or satisfied.
    "But I hope that my impact fell far more in other areas. When people tell me about when we use to do the Rolling Stone stuff, MTV Cribs, that I  was taking the sport into the mainstream.  I really took that as a compliment. 
    "Being one of the few drivers that could do that at that time, I was really proud of that fact. 
     "I would like to think I put the sport in front of a lot of people that never would have seen it before. 
    "So, while I'm in it to win races  -- when I'm done, I want everybody to appreciate what I did on the racetrack -- but hopefully I can do even bigger things aside from that."


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The official entry list for the 52nd running the NASCAR season-opening Daytona 500




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