Junior buzz casts shadow on Daytona pole-sitter Johnson

2/10/2008 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A crew member from Dale Earnhardt Inc. patted the driver wearing the green and white fire suit on the back as he made his way through the tight row of cars just off pit road during Sunday's qualifying for the Daytona 500.

"Nice run last night," he said with a big smile.

Three steps later, the driver received congratulations from another crew member. Then another.

On a sunny afternoon when Jimmie Johnson won the pole for the 50th running of the Great American Race and when Michael Waltrip captured the second spot a year after a foreign substance was discovered in his engine during pre-qualifying inspection, the buzz around this beachside town remained on Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR's most popular driver was still abuzz himself after winning Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, his first start for Hendrick Motorsports with his new number (88) and sponsors since leaving DEI.

But not nearly as buzzed as track president Robin Braig and Mark Dyer, the president and CEO of Motorsports Authentics -- or anybody else who deals with the sport's economic struggles and sagging television ratings.

"It's huge," Dyer said. "NASCAR fans across America today are talking about Dale Jr.'s win and the ramifications of that. I think everybody has a little more bounce in their step here. Not the other teams, but those that are in the business side of the sport."

Nobody was happier than Braig, who wants to sell all the tickets he can for Thursday's qualifying races and other events heading into the 500.

"As a track promoter, Junior sells a lot of tickets and a lot of merchandise," he said. "When he brings that many people, with him comes food and beverage and everything else. He didn't finish the year last year strong, and we saw it in our merchandise sales. Then when he switched teams, there almost felt like there was an air of uncertainty there.

"For him to bust out the first race, the first time on the track, how cool is that? Now the whole wave of the Junior Nation is back. It's so critical to have that kind of following, fan enthusiasm."

Braig said Earnhardt's impact on attendance, merchandise sales and television ratings is similar to that of Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour.

"Beyond his Sprint Cup stuff, when he announces he's going to run a Nationwide race, sales go up," Braig said. "It's like when Tiger signs up for a tournament you weren't expecting, sales go up.

"Last year, Dale was kind enough to do an appearance in the Fan Zone. We sold it out in a matter of days. And they don't get promised an autograph. It's amazing what he can do."

Five of the 27 souvenir trailers MA brought to Daytona are filled with Earnhardt's new No. 88 merchandise. Dyer said that the overnight spike in sales after Earnhardt won the Shootout was "great" and that there was potential for a record week.

"The big challenge for us is replenishment," Dyer said. "We are running trucks literally every day from our headquarters in Concord, N.C., to keep up with the demand.

"We've kind of got a little bit of a caravan going with the Dale Jr. and other driver product, and the big crowds haven't gotten here yet. Who knows how he does [the rest of the week], but I think the Junior Nation is very excited right now."

For him to bust out the first race, the first time on the track, how cool is that? Now the whole wave of the Junior Nation is back.

-- Robin Braig, Daytona track president

Dyer said 20 to 30 percent of MA's sales are Earnhardt-related in a typical year. He expects that to be even higher this season with a new product line.

"This sport is about a lot more than Dale Jr., but he is a big part of this sport," said Dyer, who hopes Earnhardt will help turn sales around at a company that reportedly lost more than $50 million last season. "To have him successful is good across the board for this sport."

Richard Petty, NASCAR's all-time winningest driver with 200 wins, said NASCAR can't help but benefit from Earnhardt winning.

"It helps everybody, but it helps NASCAR as much or more than it helps Earnhardt," the seven-time Cup champion said. "Last year, it was the Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon show. To have Junior up there with a chance to win helps break that up and gives the fans something to cheer for."

Rick Hendrick, who signed Earnhardt from DEI, had a better appreciation for his driver's value after watching him with the media and fans after Saturday's win.

"It's easy to see why people like him," he said. "It's easy to see why he's so popular. I watched the fans last night when he won the race. I've seen all the e-mails, the flood of calls and response from the fans. That's got to be good for the sport.

"Instead of being a boring start, we kind of got a rocket start."

And no, Hendrick hasn't checked merchandise sales back at his Concord shop.

"I'm more interested on how he runs out here and keeping my sponsors happy," he said.

Earnhardt ran all right in qualifying. He was 15th fastest, which is about where he normally is here.

"I just look forward to the rest of the week," he said of Thursday's qualifying races that will set the rest of the field behind Johnson and Waltrip. "I wish my qualifying lap had been a little better. We'll just work in the direction where it will run good in the qualifying race."

Earnhardt went to bed earlier than normal Saturday night. He didn't give much thought to what his win meant for the sport.

"I don't think I want to know that," he said. "It's probably best that I'm oblivious to that and go do my job."

Businessmen such as Dyer and Braig hope he continues to do his job so well. They can hardly imagine the impact should Earnhardt win the 500.

"That would be huge," Braig said. "It would be a big start for our merchandise sales, our Daytona golden [anniversary] logo. I'm a money man. I'm a promoter. I'm in this business for the money. The emotional piece is what really pushes that.

"Junior is a big emotional piece."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.