Yesterday, the son of the other seven-time Winston Cup champion came to the Magic Mile.
The son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has no Winston Cup victories and no finishes of 10th or better in his one Winston Cup start.
About 75 people came to watch the younger Earnhardt race around NHIS.
Junior, or Little E, whichever you prefer, came to the 1.058-mile track for nothing more than to test his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. He wasn't handing out money. He didn't come to sign autographs (although that didn't keep a few attendees from poking pens in front of his face). He just came to run fast laps in preparation for his second Cup date, the Jiffy Lube 300 at NHIS July 11, and talk for a little while. And lots of people showed up, which begs a very simple question.
Junior had a tough time answering that one himself.
"I don't know what to think of all the attention we've been getting to be honest with you," Earnhardt said during a press conference yesterday at NHIS. "I know for a fact that it's good. It's good for the team. It's good for exposure."
Exposure is something Little E has gotten used to over the last six months. Bill Etling, senior manager for marketing communications at Anheuser-Busch, brought 75 press kits with him to NHIS yesterday and left with none. He brought 250 to Charlotte Motor Speedway, the site of Junior's first Winston Cup race, the Coca-Cola 600, in which the 24-year-old started eighth and finished 16th, and they were gone in a heartbeat.
So what's the big deal?
There's the name, of course.
And there's the previous success - he's the defending Busch Series champion and currently leads the points in that division.
But it goes beyond that.
He has youth, and not only in age. After all, Jeff Gordon was the same age as Junior is now when he won his first Winston Cup champion. But the calculating Gordon acted like a 35-year-old at the time. He probably never listened to Pearl Jam. He never bleached his hair. He never sat in with his friends' band to play drums, as Little E will do with his buddies in Bridge, which opens for Edwin McCain Saturday at Watkins Glen. Gordon's idea of living on the edge was probably throwing pepperoni instead of sausage on his pizza. (Can't you just see him agonizing over the decision: "Whaddya think, Brooke?")
Junior is different. He says he wants to keep it real. He acts as if he's living in a dream world and he certainly appears to be appreciative of all he's been given. And he's not afraid to say he can't fully appreciate it now, either.
"It'll probably be 20 or 30 years before I can look back and see how important or how big a deal or how huge an opportunity or how great this has been," Earnhardt Jr. said of the backing of Budweiser. Anheuser-Busch has issued 100 million cans of beer with Junior's No. 8 car on the side of it.
It goes beyond youth, though, too.
Little E is something fresh. The purist fans can love him for his racing roots. The young fans can love him for his blond roots. Junior even said that the reception he gets during driver introductions affects him. Imagine, an athlete who actually cares about the fans and what they think. He likes to sign autographs; he says he's still blown away when he's asked to sign. He obliged yesterday, too, despite the fact that everyone was told not to ask.
"When I started running Late Model cars, people used to ask me to give autographs . . . Man, it just freaks me out," Junior said. "I just couldn't believe it. And still today it surprises the heck out of me because there's guys out there that are doing a whole lot more than I've been doing that you don't see getting that kind of attention."
He's humble, too, saying his upbringing won't let him be anything less.
All of this together makes him great for a sport too often dominated by drivers that walk out of a glossy 8x10 photo and speak of all the help their sponsor has given them and how great the engine was or, worse yet, how bad the track conditions were or how the car just wouldn't do what he wanted it to do.
Still, he's been in only one race. Isn't it surprising that 75 people came to watch him test?
After listening to him for an hour, you'd be surprised there weren't more.
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