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Thursday, January 21, 2010
Catching up with Dale Earnhardt Jr.


CONCORD, N.C. -- Few voices in the NASCAR industry carry the weight Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s does. He can't grasp why he's such a big deal, but fact is, he is. On Wednesday, he addressed several key topics about the 2010 season during the media-tour stop at Hendrick Motorsports. Here's a quick peek:

• Danicamania

So, how's Danica Patrick progressing in stock cars?

Don't ask her high-profile team owner. He only knows what he hears.

Granted, he hears great things, but he hasn't seen it for himself just yet.

"Tony [Eury] Jr. and Kelley [Earnhardt] have to tell me what to do with Danica," Earnhardt said. "It's up to them. I'd be fun to be more involved, but driving this Cup car [requires] little distractions."

Junior said he hasn't seen Patrick since they formally announced her move to JR Motorsports back in mid-December. Patrick lives in Phoenix, Junior near Charlotte.

He said having Eury as part-owner of the team is key. He's fully invested in ensuring Patrick's success.

• Reality show

Speaking of distractions, Earnhardt can ill-afford any from the No. 88 Cup Chevy in 2010. He seems refreshed, invigorated. Was 2009 a wake-up call?

Negative.

"I appreciated how hard it was because it was a challenge for me from the very beginning," he said. "I won three races in the first half of my rookie year, and we'd won two straight Busch championships already. I thought, hell, we're gonna rock this deal just like Busch. Then we tanked out, so reality hit quick for me."

• Start me up (earlier!)

Earnhardt is the nostalgic type, loves old-school NASCAR and appreciates the sport's history like few others wheeling cars these days.

Evidence of his homage to days gone by: The Speed Channel show he once hosted (still may; I have no idea) about long-lost competition, and a penchant for emulating historic paint schemes with his own cars.

At Darlington in 2008 he ran Darrell Waltrip's '80s-era Mountain Dew No. 88, and it was the baddest-looking ride to grace the track in years. His driving suit, incidentally, was even better.

Then he one-upped himself with Buddy Baker's late-'70s Gray Ghost, black with silver numbers. It was even sharper than the Dew car.

That love of history is the main reason he's such a proponent of NASCAR's decision to implement unified, earlier start times.

It whisks him back to childhood.

"I'm super-happy about [the start time change]," Earnhardt said. "When I was a kid, one thing I counted on was rushing home from church to catch the start of the race. There's something really awesome about that routine."

He's right.

Many longtime fans remember it well.

• Chemistry experiment

Though some drivers -- Carl Edwards, for example -- don't believe in it, it seems chemistry is vital to many teams' success in NASCAR. Earnhardt isn't sure he's ever experienced great chemistry.

"I can't really say that I've really been in a situation yet where I feel like the chemistry for me was really golden," he said. "I've been with some great teams, and had good wins and great success at certain periods of time in my career. But it's hard for me to really be able to point out what exactly great chemistry is just yet."

Lance McGrew may be just the guy to show him. They're buddies off the track as well. For Junior, that's paramount.

"I get along great with Lance and we have a lot of fun, and I think that's important that we enjoy being around each other, and we can kind of build on that friendship and learn from each other at the racetrack in our work ethic and work habits," Earnhardt said. "That stuff should work itself out. I definitely think we're going in the correct direction, which is good compared to where we were going last year."