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Friday, June 22, 2007
New team, new sponsors, new hope for Earnhardt Jr.

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

SONOMA, Calif. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a Barry Manilow fan.

"Sure, I have a few of his tunes on my iPod," Earnhardt said. "I really like 'Weekend in New England.' I mean, the guy's a legend. Doesn't everybody listen to a few of Barry's songs every now and then."

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is smiling a lot more these days.

Meet the new Dale Jr., folks, the one who smiles 95 percent of the time and isn't afraid to redesign his image.

Earnhardt enjoyed a gorgeous Napa Valley evening at the Nickel & Nickel Winery on Thursday night, announcing his new personal sponsorship deal with Sony.

"I'm a real electronics nut, so this is perfect for me," Earnhardt said. "I love to tinker with this stuff. I think I've taken apart my stereo system 16 times, and 14 of those times I put it back together successfully."

Earnhardt had fun laughing at himself. This is a happy man. It's good to be Dale Jr. these days.

That wasn't always the case. Trying to live up to his father's legacy at the company Dale Sr. founded was a burden at times for Junior.

Dale Jr. can't be his father as a driver. No one can. But Junior also can't be his father as a person. He never tried to fit in that mold.

"My dad knew how to promote himself," Earnhardt said. "He was 'The Intimidator.' That's how people saw him and that's what he played up.

"But I've always tried to be an easy-going guy. That's who I am and I think that's my image."

For the first time in his career, Earnhardt is free to be whoever he wants to be. And he's a new man since his decision to leave DEI and join Hendrick Motorsports.

"There's just a lot of pressure off me now," Earnhardt said. "A lot of pressure is gone."

Since his father's death six years ago, Earnhardt often had an air of melancholia about him. He was a wealthy young man doing what he loved, but an overall level of satisfaction was missing.

All that has changed. The man is so happy these days he hardly can contain himself. Every day is Christmas morning.

Everyone keeps talking about my brand. I really don't know what that means. It's still evolving, I guess.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt is a lame duck at DEI, a situation that rarely ends well for any driver. But Earnhardt is completely at peace with himself, so his final half-season at DEI could produce some of the best results of his career.

And it doesn't hurt that DEI is on a roll. It's three drivers -- Earnhardt, Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard -- have one victory, four top-5s, six top-10s and nine top-12s in their last 12 starts over five races.

It's the best of times for Earnhardt and it shows. He now feels free to be himself, whoever that is. And he isn't always sure who that is.

"Everyone keeps talking about my brand," he said. "I really don't know what that means. It's still evolving, I guess."

People want to know if it's evolving beyond Budweiser. Will Junior no longer act as the unofficial symbol of frat parties nationwide?

"I know where you're going there," Earnhardt said. "But I can't help you."

Earnhardt, 32, won't say if his days as the Bud boy are ending. Maybe he really doesn't know yet. But his move to Hendrick could bring about a new direction for Earnhardt as we know him.

"I think we'll see a lot of new partnerships over the next six months," Earnhardt said. "That's one of the good things about making this move. At DEI, I wasn't free to do some of the things I'm doing now."

Earnhardt is expected to announce soon a new deal with Adidas for his own clothing line. And other sponsors are lining up to have Earnhardt on their team.

The man is a license to print money. And the biggest deal is still to come. The primary sponsorship for Earnhardt's Chevrolet next season could cost as much as $25 million.

It's at least $5 million more than most championship-caliber teams get now, but this is a unique situation. Other than Tiger Woods, Earnhardt may be the most marketable athlete in the country.

And Rick Hendrick has plenty of selling points to offer. If you buy Dale Jr., you also get Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as part of the package.

So pony up, boys. The marketing coup of the decade is here for the taking. Big sponsors, small sponsors, there's room for everyone on the Earnhardt promotional train.

Hey, maybe Manilow can promote his next tour to a whole new demographic. A Manilow decal on the rear deck lid of Earnhardt's car at Talladega.

Uh, maybe not. The Earnhardt brand is changing, but let's not get carried away.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak5.com.