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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Earnhardt still his own man

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Dale Earnhardt Jr., alongside Rick Hendrick, cleaned himself up for his announcement he was moving to Hendrick Motorsports. Dale Earnhardt Jr., alongside Rick Hendrick, cleaned himself up for his announcement he was moving to Hendrick Motorsports.
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CHARLOTTE - Fame and fortune have yet to change Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he doesn't believe new boss Rick Hendrick will try to do it, either.

Push aside for now the blueprint on how to massage three superstars on the same team. The most pressing issue surrounding Earnhardt is how he'll adapt to Hendrick's spit-polished organization when he officially joins the team next season. Earnhardt agreed to a five-year contract Wednesday.

"Rick said he's not going to ask me to change too much, [I] may not be able to wear jeans and T-shirts quite as often," Earnhardt said. "It's going to be a great experience for me, and I think my fans are going to still have the same Dale Jr. that they have always had and the one they like to cheer for."

Earnhardt has created a brand out of his carefree, aw-shucks image, and fans have overwhelmingly embraced him by voting him NASCAR's most popular driver the past four years.

But it's not a great fit at Hendrick Motorsports, where the drivers are consummate corporate pitchmen who work hard walking the company line:

•Jeff Gordon, a savvy four-time champion, was the first NASCAR driver to make an impact on Madison Avenue. He's a regular on Live with Regis and Kelly and did a stint hosting Saturday Night Live. He markets a Jeff Gordon wine, hawks pricey sunglasses and Swiss watches.

•Jimmie Johnson, the defending Nextel Cup champion, got to this level by charming sponsors. He pulled himself through the ranks by being polite and punctual, skills that made him capable of networking his way around crowded cocktail parties.

•Casey Mears, Hendrick's rising star, is a nice kid who grew up in a racing family. As the nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears, he's always been aware of the importance of fitting in and keeping sponsors happy.

It's a dream crew for Hendrick, who outfits his drivers in black slacks and starched white shirts. They're clean-shaven, punctual, and rarely say the wrong thing.

Earnhardt is the exact opposite on every level. He drinks Budweiser and plays video games, often forgets to shave, and hates wearing suits. He sleeps late, grabs the first wrinkled T-shirt he can find, and was once fined $25,000 for cursing on TV.

Resisting the urge to polish him comes with the risk of letting Earnhardt become the oddball relative of the Hendrick crew, but the boss thinks that's just fine.

"He asked me, 'Rick, I dress this way, what do you want me to do?' I said it depends on what the sponsor is and what they want you to do," Hendrick said. "He is a brand, Jeff is a brand, and Jimmie is a certain way, and I don't try to change them. I want to create multiple brands. I don't want to have four cookie-cutter kind of guys."

But the Hendrick touches were evident Wednesday, when a beaming Earnhardt announced his partnership with Hendrick. The news conference was held at his race shop, JR Motorsports, same site of his May 10 announcement that he was leaving DEI at the end of this season. Junior arrived at the first one with a beard, wearing an unbuttoned shirt over a white T-shirt.

Earnhardt, who took ribbing on ESPN's Pardon The Interruption for his appearance five weeks earlier, spiffed himself up Wednesday with a dark dress shirt (albeit it untucked) with his clean blue jeans. He'd even shaved.



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