The sweet contender

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It was the first day Amp green replaced Bud red as the color of choice in NASCAR grandstands, and it takes some getting used to, not just because the new look of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans is so decidedly garish.

For NASCAR, though, it was a site to behold – cash registers spinning, word of a near mob scene at the opening of his adidas line the other day and this entire shift of Junior from his dad's old company to the sport's best one.

But mostly it meant one thing – Earnhardt in contention to the very end here at the Daytona 500. He wound up ninth – no threat in the final lap to winner Ryan Newman – when stuck on old tires that kept him bottled up in late traffic.

"I couldn't do much," he said after Sunday's race. "I was kind of in a box. I was on the bottom, and I couldn't do anything."

But he was in it; he was a contender. Driving for his new Hendrick Motorsports team, the change proved to be more than colors and numbers and jokes about what fans were going to do with their red No. 8 tattoos.

This time, he wasn't back at his trailer halfway though the day looking over another blown engine.

"I am real proud of Hendrick and the effort they gave me," he said. "I think the year is going to be like that, and I am really going to enjoy it."

If so, NASCAR will, too. The circuit's television ratings aren't in the same boat as the PGA Tour – where it practically is Tiger or famine – but as the sport has stalled out in popularity in recent years and ratings have sunk, a revival of Earnhardt's career would be more than welcomed.

Everyone knows he can sell stuff; everyone knows he can draw media attention. The question is whether he can win.

Sunday didn't answer that, but it looked like a step in the right direction.

This was the 63rd consecutive start for Earnhardt that didn't end under a flurry of checkers. And if you think competing was enough for this guy, you didn't see the disappointment and regret on his face after.

"I made the wrong choices," he said. "Just made poor choices."

He brushed off the decision to stay out and not taking new tires late in the race.

"It wasn't the tires; we had good grip at the end," he said, defending his crew chief's decision not to pit for new tires when the rest of the leaders did.

He was more upset with not making runs at the right time and getting stuck behind cars at the worst possible moment.

"(He) just kind of got out of time with the lines running," said crew chief Tony Eury Jr. "He made a shot to go with Kyle (Busch) at the end, and it didn't work. I feel really good, though. (The car) was running good all night. The car was good; that's a big plus."

So that's the challenge now; that's the pressure on Earnhardt. He made the emotional and contentious move from the struggling Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick, a dominant team the last couple of years, because he wanted to win. He wanted to be a champion.

It was four years ago that Earnhardt won this race, an emotional victory at the track where his father died in 2001. That win also seemed to be the start of something special – the first race of a season that shot Earnhardt into the stratosphere. He won six races that year, proving worthy of his rock star status among the fans.

NASCAR was a world about to become his. Junior on the way, it seemed, to becoming every bit the driver of his seven-time Cup champion father.

But then he won once in 2005, once in 2006 and threw a complete oh-fer for 2007.

And while NASCAR's sagging fortunes aren't exclusively tied to Junior's, you can't expect not to feel some damaging effects if your most popular player isn't putting up the numbers.

So here were those final, furious laps at the 50th Daytona 500, a series of restarts dictating bumper-to-bumper, door-to-door-to-door racing. And there Earnhardt was right in the middle of it, that unfamiliar white and green car giving as good as it was getting. It wasn't the fastest on the track, but it was contending for the win, which is the most important thing.

"We had great motors all week and another one today," he said.

Afterward, Earnhardt weaved through the garage area surrounded by a horde of media. He took time to wave occasionally to his screaming fans, but mostly he never stopped moving.

He was polite but clearly ready to get back to his motor home and contemplate what went wrong, what can be done better next week.

"Going (to try) to build on this," he said.

Soon, he took a seat in a golf cart and took off, the end of the first day of the rest of Dale Earnhardt's racing career.

A good start. But not good enough, he knows.

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