- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. meanders about the halls of Graceland with his grandmother Martha and aunt Kathy. A gaggle of random buddies, including NHRA Top Fuel drag racing star Brandon Bernstein, are in tow.
They follow along attentively as an enthusiastic tour guide gushes the fine detail of everything Elvis. She points to a massive television set (TV table may be more accurate) and explains it was a commemorative gift to Elvis from RCA upon his return from the Army.
He'd sold 50 million records during a four-year span, and this was the nicest tube on the market. She also points out a photo at the foot of the entry-way stairs in which Elvis has blond hair. It is one of the final photos taken of him before he decided to dye his hair from blond to black to better accentuate those striking facial features.
Very educational, this tour. The Earnhardts are Elvis fans. Martha, in fact, is a bit of a freak. She was "one of those screaming girls in the front row" so often seen in footage of his concerts. Junior is a fan because of Martha.
When he was a young boy, he would stay with Martha while his father was off racing because, as Junior puts it, "he had a hard time finding people that would put up with me."
Martha played Elvis and Patsy Cline on the record player. Junior dug it, and he has been a fan ever since. They're absorbing every morsel of this tour.
The group moves efficiently through the house, stopping in each room for an explanation of its role in the grand aura. Some rooms are dimly lit; others ablaze with brilliant color. With each intricate tidbit, heads nod and twist sideways, eyebrows raised in the standard "Hmm -- no kidding?" reaction. Not much is said, though, until the group reaches the storied Jungle Room.
On a wooden coffee table sits a standard-sized briefcase. It is silver and carries a telephone inside. It is explained that this is one of the first portable phones ever made, and that Elvis had a pair of them. The case is open and faces away from the room, toward the walkway. A yellow piece of paper attached to the inside of the lid offers handwritten operating instructions for the phone.
It is Elvis' handwriting.
Junior is intrigued. He'd enjoyed the pool-table room with its pleated-curtain ceiling and dug the small, canary-yellow-padded bar area in the entertainment room. But the handwriting is the coolest thing he's seen in the definitive museum of cool. He leans over the velvet rope and squints a bit to better focus the handwritten letters in the dark room.
Earnhardt is a rather introspective type. He thinks before he speaks, rarely wasting words. He considers a man's handwriting as a true link to his past, a sort of tangible context. He speaks of it admirably multiple times.
And the grave site is of particular interest, too. Sacred ground. It reads "Elvis Aaron Presley" and carries a small cross at its crest. At its head burns an eternal flame. As he peers at it, Earnhardt appreciates the access, knowing how badly the thousands of folks milling about outside the gates would love an opportunity for this vantage point.
"You get the feeling you're around something great here [at Graceland]," he says.
He and Bernstein are here making a promotional appearance for Budweiser, the primary sponsor for both drivers' race teams. It is the 30th anniversary of Elvis' death and Budweiser is unveiling the special Elvis paint scheme Earnhardt will run at Richmond International Raceway next month. It is white and carries a black No. 8 that's rimmed in red. Elvis' likeness is positioned on the left side of the hood, facing right.
It is a gorgeous race car. Earnhardt is giddy.
"It'd be great to make the Chase in this car," Earnhardt said. "If we have to put a bumper to 'em, I doubt Elvis will mind too much."
He is asked if his driver suit will match, have an Elvis flare.
"It won't be leather, unfortunately," he laughs.
But expect something unique. Bernstein one-ups him later in the evening by revealing his getup will include a rhinestone collar and beltline -- and the kicker, blue suede shoes.
"You got blue suede shoes, man?" Earnhardt asks in a "Damnit, I wish I thought of that" tone.
Earnhardt then speaks briefly to the assembled press, answering the typical questions in atypical fashion.
Favorite Elvis movie?
"'Speedway.' I liked to see his take on stock car racing."
Favorite Elvis song?
"'[An] American Trilogy.' He just sings his ass off in that song."
If you could have anything that was Elvis' what would it be?
"His attitude," he said. "[His] mannerisms. How people were drawn to him. His charisma, swagger. He had it all. That's what I enjoyed about him. When you walk into a room and you changed the room, that'd be kind of cool."
He might want to look in the mirror. Just down the way thousands of fans clamor for him to grace their presence.
If you didn't know better you'd swear Dale Earnhardt Jr. was Elvis.
Even at Graceland.
Speaking of Budweiser ...
I was just wondering what you have heard on the rumors that Budweiser is going to the No. 9 car and Kasey Kahne next year. Would Kasey also get a personal-service contract with the brand as well? Love your stuff, by the way.
-- Drew, hometown unknown
Most folks in the industry think it's a foregone conclusion, Drew -- me included, though I have no substantiated proof just yet. Dodge has to agree to come off the hood, which it wouldn't do in the past when other sponsors -- such as UPS -- showed particular interest in sponsoring Kahne.
If it ultimately does happen, it will be quite interesting to witness the rebranding of Budweiser beer. The Dale Jr. fan and the Kasey Kahne fan are entirely different people. Might Anheuser-Busch use Kahne to promote Bud as a chic, trendy beer?
Some talk of putting a road course into the Chase. I doubt that will happen, but how about swapping a few races around and making Watkins Glen the Richmond of NASCAR?
Think of it, the last chance to make the Chase! Think of what some of the bubble drivers would do! It makes Montreal in the Busch Series look like a walk in the park! All the banging, bumping and actually making a road course fun for all NASCAR fans -- I like 'em myself, and I have been a NASCAR fan since the '70s.
What's your take? Thanks Marty!
-- Rick Richardson, Texas
I love road-course racing, Rick, and I wholeheartedly believe a road event should be included in the Chase. The eventual champion should be forced to perform on every type of track during his 10-race title march.
And between Mexico City, Sonoma, Montreal and Watkins Glen, road courses have provided fans some of the season's best on-track drama. (Montoya vs. Pruett? Robby Gordon vs. NASCAR? Montoya vs. Harvick, and Gordon vs. Turn 1? Come on. How great is that?)
But making Watkins Glen the Chase clincher? No. Richmond is perfect. A short track with speedway tendencies. Three grooves. Some of the best competition the sport has to offer. I think that part of the schedule is perfect as is.
Great column on the Montreal race. I agree with you that Robby Gordon got screwed. When he gave Marcos (Ambrose) that car at The Glen, was that just a makeup ploy or does he really want to add a second team?
-- Chuck Roberts, Pilot Point, Texas
Robby Gordon Motorsports is working diligently to find funding to add a second Nextel Cup Series team for 2008, Chuck. I spoke with Gordon about it and he said RGM officials meet on the subject often, and that he "believes a second car is real. We're not make-believing. We're working hard on it."
Gordon feels he has the facilities to seamlessly add a second team, but he would have to hire more people. The major hang up is money; sponsors are reluctant to spend millions on a start-up program that isn't guaranteed a position in the first five races of 2008, through the top-35 rule.
"We're obviously discussing it," Gordon said. "There is opportunity. Getting it done is another thing. I think, when you look at my little single-car team, for us to be where we're at -- top-25 in points, we're ahead of two Evernham Motorsports cars, two Ganassi cars, two Yates cars.
"So obviously we're capable of running one car. A second car would only enhance our capabilities. Processes are in place to build and operate two cars."
Quick one for you: I notice every week, the No. 20 car always has a four-digit number on the bottom of the rear quarter panels (behind the rear wheels) and it's different every week. For example, it read "2037" at Watkins Glen this past weekend. Do you know what this number represents every week?
-- Brady Smith, Laurel, Md.
Good question, Brady. The number represents the best-performing Home Depot store from the previous week. It is an internal initiative Home Depot began several years ago that has proved wildly successful among their associates and store managers. The opportunity to race with Tony Stewart offers extra incentive to get it done. Office Depot does a similar program with Carl Edwards.
Buried in the whole DEI/Ginn merger was the elimination of the No. 13 car and its all important position in the top 35 of the owners points. Why was the 13 team eliminated instead of sold to another team? I would think that many teams would have paid a fairly large sum for that guaranteed starting spot in the field each week.
-- Ron York, Omaha, Neb.
Oh, teams would most certainly pay a premium for the guaranteed spot, Ron. Problem is NASCAR won't let them. NASCAR disallows the sale of owner points, feeling that would create a scenario that opens the door for wealthy team owners to buy championships rather than earning them.
Been watching J.J. Yeley since his USAC days. Where's he going to end up? Will he get another shot in Cup?
-- Tim H., Phoenix
Without question he'll get another Nextel Cup shot, Tim. Not sure where just yet, but according to Mike Brown at Bill Davis Racing he's at the top of everyone's list of potential drivers. Brown tells me BDR is very interested in Yeley, and that he has been on their radar screen for several years now.
They have requested they be kept abreast of Yeley's situation and where they stand in terms of landing his driving services. He has options, Tim.
That's my time for this week. Hopefully it wasn't terribly boring for you this time around, Bobby in Houston. I'd hate for you to waste those precious 10 minutes yet again.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.