Imedia Tour 2001: Day 3/Ibrdale Jr Plays The Fame Game

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In his rookie season on the Winston Cup circuit, Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought more attention to NASCAR from outside the racing world than any other first-year driver in history… And he loved every minute of it.

The son of a seven-time champion, the 26-year-old took the Winston Cup circuit by storm in 2000 with two wins – plus a Winston all-star race victory - in his freshman year.

Perhaps more remarkably, Earnhardt Jr. grabbed attention from media outlets that had not been very concerned with racing before. Away from the track, the young man from a small mill town in North Carolina became a media darling.

During an exclusive interview with RacingOne, Earnhardt Jr. and those most familiar with his situation talked about his newfound media attention and how he’s dealt with it. While many Winston Cup drivers see the media as a necessary evil to help promote their sponsor's cause, Earnhardt Jr. hasn't seen the media in that same light.

He actually enjoys all this attention.

"This is the kind of stuff you strive for," says Earnhardt Jr., who won back-to-back championships in Busch Series competition before moving into Winston Cup in the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet.

His move up to NASCAR's top level had already created a stir within the motorsports media, but with early victories at Texas and Richmond – as well as The Winston win – there soon came a barrage of interest in who this Earnhardt Jr. guy really was.

Rolling Stone magazine did a large feature on his rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. People magazine named Earnhardt Jr. one of the world’s "Sexiest Men" in a recent edition. He’s been on the cover of TV Guide and also Sports Illustrated’s Cup preview issue.

The television media has also come calling on Earnhardt Jr. with feature episodes on FX's “The X Show,” Comedy Central and a soon-to-be-aired episode of MTV's “True Life,” where he was followed for part of the 2000 season.

He’s been from the floor of the New York Stock exchange signing autographs to a Navy carrier in Hawaii. So you get the picture that Earnhardt Jr. has had a lot on his plate over the past year.

"That's just the way it is," Earnhardt Jr. says. "It's something we've strived on and tried to work with. I've had a lot of talent behind me in the PR department with Jade Gurss and Steve Crisp. I got a lot of attention in the Busch Series without really asking for it. It was already given to us.

"We came into Winston Cup and won three races right out of the box, but as the year went on our success and performance wasn't that great. Those guys were able to get our names out there in some pretty impressive publications. That’s tough when you're not one of the top-five or top-10 drivers in the series."

According to both Crisp and Gurss, Earnhardt Jr. has done a lot more with the media than what was asked or expected.

"He handled it real well from the start,” says Crisp, the director of public relations at Dale Earnhardt Inc. “He had a lot more pressure being who he was than a normal rookie would have had. He had pressure to live up to what everybody expected of him. I feel like he probably did better with the media than on the track. Dale Jr. had a great first half of the season, but struggled the second half and still got a lot of exposure."

Gurss, who handles Earnhardt's day-to-day schedule both at the track and away, says he's never been a part of anything like this before.

"It's been interesting to watch how all the different markets of the country have developed an interest in Dale Jr." Gurss says. “It's been pretty cool to see how he handles dealing with all these non-racing types of media. A lot of those types of media have been aimed at his generation, and Dale Jr. has understood that. He knows it's a part of his job and it’s going to help him in his career."

What Earnhardt Jr. pulled off last year left a lasting impression on his fellow competitors, many of whom have struggled with the motorsports media even without having the national publications calling, as well.

"Dale Jr. did a good job because this is hard," says Tony Stewart, who also burst into Winston Cup very successfully on the track, but has gone through a love-hate relationship with the press. "It's a culture shock when you go Winston Cup racing. Everything you've learned in every other form of racing doesn't help prepare you to deal with the media and the press that you deal with once you come into the Winston Cup Series."

Veteran driver Michael Waltrip, who is now a teammate of Earnhardt Jr. at DEI along with Steve Park, says he’s also been surprised with how well “Junior” handled all the obstacles that were thrown his way last year.

"Dale Jr. has really impressed me because he enjoys life and has fun, but when it comes time to do his job, he meets his responsibilities and drives the heck out of a race car," Waltrip says. "When he's done with the car, he can get out for a few days and go do the things he enjoys doing. I really like the way Dale Jr. has handled himself and his popularity, because I don't know anybody any more popular than him other than his dad.

"He's just fun to listen to and I've enjoyed getting to know him."

As last year wore on, the on-track performance of the No. 8 team slipped dramatically, which was a bitter pill for Earnhardt Jr. to have to swallow.

"It makes you feel proud when you win, but when I crash I feel like crap and like I don't deserve all this," says Earnhardt Jr., who finished 16th in last year's championship race. "There were a lot of problems we had. We all had ego and personality problems and lost faith in one another. My crew and I let the success we had at the first of the year go to our heads. In the second half of the year, when we didn't repeat what we'd done in the first part, we let each other know we weren't happy."

According to Tony Eury Jr., the car chief for Earnhardt Jr., there was a point in midseason where the team couldn't seem to do anything right.

"He did pretty well at the start of the year, and it was kind of like racing in the Busch Series," Eury says. "Once we won those races, it got more and more hectic because the pressure from the media was there to have a dream season. That put a little more stress on him. Then when we went through that bad stretch of runs, Dale Jr. lost all his confidence and we fell off. Plus we were getting burnt out as a team with the hectic schedule.

"Now, Dale has realized he's not going to be like he was in the Busch Series. He's not going to be dominant, or anybody else is either, when it comes to Winston Cup. It was kind of cool to have the wins to show he could do it, but then again, he saw the other end of it, too. He knows how tough this series is. Dale went through all of that in one year.”

Earnhardt Jr. says while he enjoys dealing with the media, he also needs to learn to take a more focused approach at the track.

"Me and Tony Jr. are cousins, so we can walk down pit road and push each other around and cuss each other before we go home and not even think about it," Earnhardt Jr. explains. "When the team saw that, they didn't know what was going on and why we were fighting and nothing was wrong between us the next day. That just wasn't healthy. Me and Tony Jr. need to grow up and be men."

For the most part, Eury Jr. explains, his driver did manage to get through his rookie season in pretty good shape.

"He was pretty open-minded," Eury says. "Tony Stewart went through the same deal, but Tony kind of spilled the beans and let what he thought rip. Then it took him two months to apologize for it. It comes with the territory, and I can see where both of them are coming from. They can sit at the back of the truck, and every reporter will come up and ask them the same questions over and over again. You might have one or two reporters that comes up with something a little different, but when you're asked the same questions every week it can get old.

"It's like when you win a race, for the next four weeks, every city you go to for a race, the local media is going to be asking about that win. As a driver, they need to be focusing on what's going on this week instead of a month ago."

Earnhardt Jr. says repeated questions have been something he’s really had a problem with.

"You just run out of ways to answer them," Earnhardt Jr. says with a laugh. "You get a lot of practice, and I look at every interview as a way to practice my speaking and stuff like that. I feel like it's fun and enjoyable. I'm always looking to tell my side of the story."

After getting the year started so well, Eury says the No. 8 camp let their guard down and thought they were better than what they really were.

"The media can make you feel like you are Superman when you're nothing," Eury says. "You can feel invincible after you win a race, but after that race you're a nobody again. That's the way I look at it. You might have won the last race, but what good is that going to do you when you crash the next three?"

Waltrip says as Earnhardt Jr. matures and gains experience on the track, he’ll be a real force to be reckoned with for years to come.

"If reporters keep asking you stuff over and over again, and you get tired of listening to it, the worst thing to do is show it," says Waltrip, who holds the longest winless streak in Winston Cup racing. "You just listen to the questions and answer the questions with the understanding that it's a part of your job. Dale Jr. has been around this stuff his whole life and understands it all pretty well."

As far as the attention and notoriety, Eury Jr. says a lot of that is self-imposed.

"Dale Jr. does a lot of things to attract attention," Eury says. "Dale Jr. will do something different or weird, like dying his hair, just to change the atmosphere a little bit. He had us wear some kind of bandana around our heads at Rockingham when we had the pit crew championship. Dale Jr. does stuff like that just to get the attention of people.

“He doesn't want people to think he's like his dad. Dale Jr. has taken all his dad's mistakes and tried to polish them, and that's what his dad has been pushing him to do. Dale Earnhardt is the best teacher you could have.

"Plus, a lot of the friends that Dale hangs out with during the week, they couldn't care less about racing. When he's with them, the subject of racing never comes up."

According to Eury, those friends may be the best medicine for Earnhardt Jr. as far as getting away from the everyday hassles of being a Winston Cup superstar.

"He'd rather have a friend that never mentions the word racing than have one who talks about nothing but racing all week," Eury says. "When he leaves the track on Sunday, he likes to forget about it. I'll go home and worry about it all week, but he doesn't want to think about it. He really likes doing things outside of racing."

Earnhardt Jr. agrees his friends are an important part of his life.

"They're very cool," Earnhardt Jr. says. "It would be like if I were in your shoes and you go out to a bar somewhere and some guy comes up and asks you 20 questions about racing. My friends take care of me so that doesn’t happen."

As far as trying to attract attention and be different, Earnhardt Jr. says he pleads guilty as charged. An example happened in May at Charlotte after radioing his crew in the garage that he'd run out of gas on pit road while practicing. More than a few people noticed the extra effort the No. 8 team had to put into pushing his car back to the garage area.

Inside the cockpit, covered beneath his helmet, were a wide grin and a laugh. Earnhardt Jr. had his foot on the brake the whole time, paying his crew back for not showing up at one of his parties.

"Yeah, sometimes I can grab attention," the young Earnhardt Jr. says with a sly smile. "When things get boring, you got to do something."

The winter months have done little to dim the wit of Earnhardt Jr., or for that matter his desire to draw attention to himself.

"I'm pretty confident I'm going to win the Daytona 500 this year," Earnhardt Jr. said last Saturday to a roomful of reporters covering the annual NASCAR Winston Cup Preview in Winston-Salem, N.C.

What might be the logic of such positive thinking?

"I dreamed about it," Earnhardt Jr. answers. "You'll can call me crazy, but I'm going to be at the postrace interview talking about how I did it. I'm going to be out front all day. It was so real it was crazy."

In that dream, where did his dad and former Daytona 500 winner finish up?

"He wasn't there," Earnhardt Jr. says.

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