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Published: Wednesday, 6/20/2007

Fans support Earnhardt Jr.'s move, even if it costs them

ASSOCIATED PRESS
NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., walks down pit row before the qualifying laps for Sunday's Citizens Bank 400 auto race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., Friday, June 15, 2007. NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., walks down pit row before the qualifying laps for Sunday's Citizens Bank 400 auto race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., Friday, June 15, 2007.
CARLOS OSORIO / AP Enlarge

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Eileen Hill was slicing potatoes and onions under the awning of her camper, covered in Dale Earnhardt Jr. garb close to a red chair with a No. 8 _ of course.

The Earnhardt fan had a few days to reflect on her favorite driver's decision to switch allegiances next year and her opinion was absolute.

"I'm not rooting for Jeff Gordon," she said with a hearty laugh. "But I'll follow Junior to whatever team he goes to."

Earnhardt announced last week that he's joining Hendrick Motorsports next year _ leaving his late father's company _ in a move that has been the talk of NASCAR.

On the infield, near the garages and at the souvenir trailers before Sunday's race at Michigan International Speedway, Junior's fans supported his decision _ even if it costs them a lot of money.

"I'm going to need a whole, new wardrobe," Hill said.

Mike Hill, her husband, sighed a few feet away.

"Oh no," he said.

Then his wife pulled up her left pant leg to proudly show off a '3' tattoo within a red heart on her ankle. It was a tribute to Earnhardt Sr.

"I'm glad I didn't get the No. 8 tattooed on me, too," she said.

Since 1999, Junior has driven the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet.

The number and beer synonymous with him that is plastered on his clothing and merchandise might be outdated after this season.

Dale Earnhardt Inc. is willing to entertain offers for Junior to take No. 8 with him, but DEI officials said last week he has not made a formal request for it. Teresa Earnhardt, his stepmother, holds the rights to the number that was also used by his grandfather, Ralph.

"It would be great to keep the 8. I'm sure my fans would appreciate that," Junior said. "You kind of have to keep the mind-set that you might have to change numbers, so you start looking at other numbers.

"There are a lot of numbers out there that I could use or would use or would like to use. It would be kind of cool."

Anheuser-Busch officials would like to stick with the NASCAR's iconic driver, but Rick Hendrick has four primary sponsors under contract through next year and he doesn't plan to alter those deals just to open a spot for Bud.

If Earnhardt is promoting another beer, bottled water or even toothpicks, chances are Rick Kilbride will support the product.

The 50-year-old fan was standing among about 100 people outside Junior's souvenir trailers on Sunday after adding key chains and a hat to what he called an "extreme" collection.

"I've got six or eight leather coats that I bought and just hang on the wall. I'll buy anything that has Jr. on it _ toilet paper, Kleenex," Kilbride said. "When he goes to Hendrick's, I'll keep buying more of his stuff. It doesn't matter who he's driving with."

Souvenir trailers throughout the Irish Hills, located about 75 miles west of Detroit, paid tribute to the fan base known as the "Red Army," sporting Junior's name, number or beer of choice on bandanas, hats, T-shirts, jerseys, bikinis, sunglasses and headphones.

Ron Arnold said he's going to save Junior's old merchandise, especially a collection of his diecast cars that includes Busch models from the late 1990s.

"They're going to be collector's items down the road," the 40-year-old fan from Kalamazoo said. "When he makes the move, I'll buy his new stuff. When it comes out, I'll get it."

Arnold's obsession is not unique.

Junior-related merchandise accounts for about 30 percent of NASCAR's sales.

Earnhardt makes an estimated $20 million annually, half of which is believed to come from merchandise sales.

When Earnhardt announced May 10 he was leaving DEI, he worried about how his loyal followers would react.

He didn't have to fret long.

Sales of Earnhardt merchandise at race tracks are up 17 percent since his May 10 announcement, industry analysts said. At NASCAR.com, where his figures spiked 107 percent the first week, sales have now leveled off but are still slightly above last season's pace.

On the wall of Junior's pit at MIS, one of the written messages included: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em! Welcome to a winning team. HMS."

Junior said he has been surprised by the support.

"You didn't really know what their reaction was going to be, but they've always been supportive in the past," he said. "Certainly, this is a little bit bigger deal than anything else I've ever done, and they continue to be supportive."

Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com



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