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So just where is Dale Earnhardt's head these days?


By Mike Mulhern

   Dale Earnhardt Jr., despite his hard-work ethic, famous name, and Rick Hendrick's support, remains an enigma, after nine seasons on the NASCAR tour.
   It's long past time for him to win a Cup championship. His father won seven titles during his 22 years on the stock car circuit.
   When the 34-year-old Earnhardt was in Nashville a few days ago, drumming up support for the sport at one of January's several 'fan fests,' he conceded as much.
   However Earnhardt downplays the current merger craze in this sport, though it's been the big talk during the off-season, with so many teams firing so many players, and so many owners struggling just to survive, however they can.
   "It seems to be the craze these days, merging," Earnhardt said. "We did it last year with Rick and our Busch (Nationwide) team.  It's actually kind of fun -- You can  consolidate some of your best parts and try to create an overall better team. 
   "Obviously it's done for financial reasons.  You try to do the best you can to reconstruct your financial expenditures.
   "But it's unnecessary to make such a big deal out of it.  It's just part of the way things are going right now. 
    "A lot of teams are finding that to be a God-send, to be able to keep competing."
    And one of those, perhaps ironically, has been Dale Earnhardt Inc., where he himself scored 17 of his 18 career wins.
   The most popular driver in NASCAR
   (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Earnhardt himself has been struggling to find sponsorship for his Nationwide team: "We're still working on some programs, to try to put some stuff together. That team is slated to run about six races; we need to run that team about 20 or 21 races at the least. That's what I'd like to do.  Those guys need to be at the race track working, so they can be learning."
   Earnhardt himself, since NASCAR has banned most testing, during the current economic crisis, has been using his home computer to keep sharp....well, maybe. "John Henry's company, Iracing.com, I've been doing that about every day, helping those guys in development of that simulation.
   "I've run about 8,000 laps since Dec. 1, when I first got on vacation, if you will."
   Henry is part-owner of the Boston Red Sox and RoushFenway.
   Without January's annual two weeks of Daytona 500 testing, Earnhardt admits he's getting antsy about things, particularly as rough as the economy is, and what that might portend for the sport.
   "The economy's in real bad shape, I think everybody knows that," Earnhardt says. "It's going to have an impact on everything. 
    "I don't really know how bad it will get.  Hopefully it don't get too bad.
    "But it's not projected to recover till late 2009. 
"We'll just have to weather the storm best we can. 
"Everybody's been making cuts -- job cuts, stuff here and there -- trying to do whatever they can to try to maintain their organization and keep their teams together.
    "But people are losing jobs in our sport.
    "Everybody is just trying to get to the end of the recession we're having right now."
   The bottom line for Earnhardt, it would seem then, is that 2009 may be a repeat of 2008, particularly with the testing ban.
   That would mean keeping an eye on Toyota's Kyle Busch and Ford's Carl Edwards...and his own teammate, three-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt concedes.
   And Earnhardt says he's become quite a fan of Edwards: "Carl did an awesome job this past year.  He's really turning into quite a representative for our sport.  He's doing a good job.
   "Those three guys are at the top right now, as far as probably being the probables to be battling for the championship. 
    "But the fact we're not testing is good for us: We have a lot of resources, simulation programs, a lot of good engineers to guess where we need to be when we go to the race track.  A lot of teams don't have that; so we'll have the advantage I think with the testing policy the way it is."
   Mark Martin, the most respected driver in NASCAR
   (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And will new teammate Mark Martin be a wild card? Where will Martin, who just turned 50, fit into things at Hendrick Motorsports?
   "I ain't really talked to him much; we haven't been around each other at all during the off-season...and I haven't seen him since the end of last year," Earnhardt says.
   "But he's a great guy...he's really appreciative...and he always has nice things to say about you. 
   "He ran a Busch race for us in Vegas, that he won.  I was clamoring to get pictures of him for my own collection, with a uniform on where it says 'JR Motorsports' on his shoulder. 
    "I just thought that was awesome, having that on his shoulder, because of what he's done in the sport, and how long he's been around. 
"One of my favorite racecars ever, as far as paint schemes go -- and you know I'm crazy about those -- is the ASA car he used to drive at Nashville.
  "Orange and white. A beautiful race car. 
"He came to my house when I must have been eight or nine years old.  We sat down in the basement, and he was showing my dad these tapes of him racing at Nashville...when Mark was trying to get into the sport, into the Winston Cup series.
    "So I've known him forever. 
    "Whether he's my teammate or not, he's an amazing asset to the sport. 
    "He's just a really, really good guy. 
    "I'm glad he decided to come back and run full-time.  He's obviously forgotten how much of a grind it is, but he'll get through it.
    "It makes it a lot easier when you're running up front. 
    "Hopefully he decides to do more than one year. I'd like to learn as much as I can from him while he's here."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still seven titles behind his old man (Photo: Steve Green/Getty Images for NASCAR)

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