Junior feeling comfortable
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Lost in the celebration of Tony Stewart's third Sprint Cup championship and the "mutual split" -- excuse me while I clear my throat -- between Kurt Busch and Penske Racing, was arguably the biggest news of the 2011 offseason.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a girlfriend.
There have been rumors that NASCAR's most popular driver for nine consecutive seasons has been dating someone for over a year, but until last week's champion's celebration in Las Vegas he hadn't gone public about his relationship with Amy Reimann.
So is NASCAR's most eligible bachelor about to be taken off the market?
"No, I'm not getting married," Earnhardt said with his familiar shy smile following Friday's banquet at the Wynn Las Vegas.
But Earnhardt is getting more comfortable with his celebrity status. Almost everywhere he went along the famous Vegas Strip, Reimann was by his side. The two were smiling, laughing and enjoying the moment like a couple should be able to, like neither has felt comfortable doing until now.
"We've just always been real private," Earnhardt said. "I've been protecting her from how tough the public can be at times. She is just a simple girl that I care a lot about and I want to make sure she's protected."
For those curious about Reimann, she is blonde and beautiful, soft-spoken when you first meet her and previously married to former University of Kentucky football player Tommy Cook.
There's not much else to tell except she and Earnhardt appear happy.
"Hopefully, she can handle it," Earnhardt said of the bright spotlight that has followed him since he entered the sport.
We can't talk about the Busch brothers, crew chief changes and how NASCAR will fix the two-car draft at Daytona and Talladega during the whole offseason.
At least Earnhardt is comfortable in his own skin and having fun. That's more than we can say about Kurt Busch, who over the last year has lost his wife and job.
You should have seen Earnhardt at Vegas, particularly on Wednesday during a NASCAR version of "The Newlywed Game." When asked what driver's wife or significant other had the best chance of winning a wet T-shirt contest, he quipped, "My future wife."
For the record, he corrected later, he wasn't talking specifically about Reimann.
But that Earnhardt feels comfortable sharing his personal life in public could be a good thing. It allows him to feel normal -- which could lessen the pressure he sometimes experiences as the son of a seven-time champion -- which could lead to something good on the track.
You know what the so-called experts say: Happy people are more motivated, tend to perform better at work and make better decisions.
Happiness equals productivity.
So perhaps the fact that Earnhardt is comfortable sharing Reimann with the world will lead to productivity on the track and end this 129-race losing streak.
There could be a downside to this as well. Considering that many of Earnhardt's fans are women, will they turn elsewhere if he's no longer available -- or one day married?
"I don't know, man," Earnhardt said when that question was posed. "Our fans are pretty loyal. They stuck around for nine years for sure. Somebody told me the other day, 'Man, you ought to give yourself some credit.'
"I know I got a majority of my fans in the late '90s from my father and I try to give him credit for that every time I get the opportunity. But I've had 10 years to screw it up and I haven't. I must be doing something right."
Good point. Popularity comes to a lot of athletes when they're winning, but when you sustain it when you're not winning, then it somehow becomes more real, genuine.
Earnhardt wants to win, though. He wants to win so bad he can taste it. He came close a few times this season, and believes he can end the streak in 2012.
If you don't believe winning is important to him, go back and look at the way he celebrated in Victory Lane before this skid began. He didn't take it for granted then, and he won't the next time, either.
"Every time I won a race I feared it might be my last," said Earnhardt, who has 18 victories in Cup. "I'd come out of that car feeling like it might be the last time, so I'm going to let it all hang out.
"We were always kind of loud and rowdy. It was just because you just never knew what was going to happen down the road. Even more so that hits home because we've had such a slump and losing streak."
In the early to mid-2000s when Earnhardt won at least twice a year, Victory Lane was one of the few places he publicly shared his emotions. His popularity was so high that it was almost impossible for him to go out without being overwhelmed by fans.
These days he can roam the malls in the Charlotte area without it becoming a circus. He talked about that when he revealed another passion -- collecting old record albums.
Or vinyl as he prefers to call them.
"I got sick of how spoiled I was on just being able to start iTunes and buy a song and playlist," Earnhardt said. "I was so burnt out on that whole process and wanted to know what it was like to do it like the old guys used to."
Not sure why he was looking in my direction when he said that, but he moved on to how he likes putting the needle on a record to pick out a song.
"I bought most of my stuff from thrift stores in Mooresville [N.C.], so it's all wore out and skips pretty bad," Earnhardt said. "I'm thinking, 'Man, I'm going to waste all this money and probably not like it.'
"But I like it. There's something nostalgic about it. I'm into nostalgic sh--. I'm just an old-school and old bones kind of guy. That stuff makes me feel good."
Earnhardt has a lot of Elvis albums because "The King" is one of his favorites. He also has some Meatloaf and Pink Floyd.
But he's not too picky. When offered my old collection of The Partridge Family, he said, "Give me anything you've got. I'm collecting."
Earnhardt laughed a lot during the champion's week in Vegas. He shared personal sides like we haven't seen before.
He left you with the feeling that something big might happen for him in 2012.
No, not marriage.
"Hopefully, getting married doesn't change everything," Earnhardt said. "But I have no plans."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.
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