Changes Abound For Earnhardt Jr.

Friday, June 22nd 2007, 5:10 pm
By: News On 6

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt Jr. already has announced one major change in his life, moving from his late father's team to Hendrick Motorsports next season. Now it appears he's working on changing his image, too.

Junior, who will leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. to work for old friend Rick Hendrick, is best known outside the car for his partying.

Part of his image has been fostered by his longtime association with sponsor Budweiser, which has him under contract for one more year. But it appears unlikely the beer company will be the sponsor on his car in 2008, with Hendrick saying he already has primary sponsors for each of his four cars.

Meanwhile, Junior has announced a personal services contract with Sony that could well be the start of building a new, more diverse and possibly more mature image for the 32-year-old racer.

The Sony announcement came Thursday night at a Napa Valley winery, where Earnhardt, driving in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway, tried to play down any efforts to change his image.

``I don't think this partnership is a big flag-waving (deal) saying there's a more mature Dale Jr. out there or whatnot because there's no real target market as far as age group when it comes to electronics,'' he said during the announcement.

``With the things we've decided to do over the last 10 months, there'll be a lot of new partnerships and new agreements. They will complement not only my personality (but) what I enjoy to do.''

Since ending his few weeks as NASCAR's biggest free agent by announcing he will drive for Hendrick next season, Earnhardt has been able to take an overarching look at his life and career.

``Looking into the future, the future looks really bright,'' Earnhardt said. ``We're partnering with Sony and all the other questions that are up in the air regarding our Cup ride in 08, those things are exciting.

``So those things change and sort of motivate you. I'm pretty excited about the next six months and a lot of answers to a lot of questions we all have as they start coming in one at a time. I'm kind of excited to kind of put the whole puzzle together and step back and take a good look at it.''

Among the big questions are whether Hendrick will try to buy Earnhardt's No. 8 from DEI and who will be the car's sponsor.

Junior pointed out that times have changed since his father, a seven-time NASCAR champion and considered by many the sport's greatest driver, was also the marketing leader.

``My father had The Intimidator style and I think it was kind of easy for him to know what he was and what he meant to other people and understand that and make it work for him,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ``When I came in, we didn't have that niche, which a lot of guys don't.''

``One of the things I've always done is just try to be as down to earth as possible and come across as the next door neighbor, the guy you run into at the gas station, someone who's easy to relate with and to talk to,'' he added.

``I think with my new boss, and what we've discussed up to this point with Mr. Rick Hendrick, we'll have the ability to sort of restructure our partners and reposition our partners to where it's a little bit more what you see is what you get. We didn't really have that ability at DEI with some of the co-sponsors and some of the small brands. But I think with the new program we might have that chance.''

The Sony deal definitely fits his persona as a confessed computer geek and longtime gamer.

``It makes my job easy to go out and be myself, as a salesman, I suppose,'' Earnhardt said. ``There are a lot of people who want to work with me and a lot of people who we want to work with. It's a very uncomfortable situation to be in a company you're not comfortable with.''

``I've been messing with gadgets and stuff for years,'' he added. ``I've used a lot of Sony products for years. They're top of the line. We're going to have a great partnership.''