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Earnhardt hype kicks into high gear

CHARLOTTE, N.C - The crowd in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. stretched five deep, everyone straining to hear the season goals of NASCAR's most popular driver.

Across the room, his championship-winning teammates politely chatted with a more intimate crowd, neither surprised at their small turnouts.

"Well, Junior's in the house, you know?" laughed four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.

The hype surrounding Earnhardt's move to Hendrick Motorsports is in high gear and only figures to grow when he takes his new ride down South later this week to prepare for the season-opening Daytona 500. NASCAR's biggest star will make his debut with NASCAR's best team, and the pressure is on everyone to make sure it's a resounding success.

Considered by some to be an overrated driver who inherited his late father's passionate fan base, Earnhardt knows he has an opportunity to prove his talent level warrants his superstar status.

After assembling NASCAR's version of a "Murderer's Row" lineup of drivers, owner Rick Hendrick understands the difficulties ahead in ensuring all four of his teams will contend for wins now that Earnhardt is in the mix.

Even NASCAR, which has pushed forward despite sagging television ratings and declining attendance, recognizes the importance in Earnhardt finding success with Hendrick.

It's documented that when Earnhardt is in the mix, ratings spike. When he's out of contention, his ardent fan base often tunes out.

NASCAR chairman Brian France believes his sport is no different from any other in that it banks on its stars to help raise interest.

"He's the marquee driver that we have - no different than a marquee franchise that other sports enjoy," France said. "So when historically important teams like the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA do well, conversely the NBA does better.

"We're no different than that. If Dale Jr. has a big year, that will help. I don't think anybody wants to have success any more than he does. If he does, it will benefit us."

As if the pressure wasn't already mounting, Earnhardt now has the burden of saving the sport.

He doesn't seem to mind.

After nine sometimes oppressive seasons driving for his late father's company, Earnhardt has unburdened himself from Dale Earnhardt Inc. while embracing his new job at Hendrick. Much like a kid in a candy store, he's taken every step with wide-eyed excitement that has seemingly re-energized his career.

Stuck in a 62-race winless drought, this new beginning has given Earnhardt the confidence that his first Sprint Cup title is just around the corner.

And if the sport's chairman believes an Earnhardt title can return NASCAR to its headier days, then Junior wants to deliver.

"It makes you feel like you've got to be luckiest guy on the face of the earth," Earnhardt said. "There ain't a guy out there that wouldn't trade to be in this position. I know that.

"I'm getting ready to drive Hendrick cars - best cars in the business, most popular driver - and I'm on the mind of the head dude? I feel just fortunate and really blessed ... to be in that situation."

It's also a dangerous place to be. Failure is not really going to be an option for Earnhardt, not with the level of investments tied into this Hendrick venture.

Although his car has been stout during preseason testing, it's still possible the No. 88 team will stumble out of the gate. It happens to new teams all the time, even at Hendrick, where Casey Mears sputtered through the first three months of his first year.

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. left DEI six weeks early last year to get a jump on the Hendrick move and ensure the team is ready, but there's no guarantee Earnhardt will find immediate success.

What happens if Earnhardt is successful? Hendrick drivers won 18 of 36 races last season, with Jimmie Johnson claiming 10 of them along with his second-straight Cup title. The competition between Johnson and Gordon, a six-time winner last season, is already intense.

Once Earnhardt starts stealing from their win column, it could be difficult to keep everyone happy.

Don't forget all the attention being showered on Earnhardt. Gordon is used to being the star at Hendrick, and Johnson has learned to live in his shadow.

Now the new guy has stolen the spotlight, while also being anointed NASCAR's savior.

Gordon gets it and doesn't seem to mind.

"It's reality and if we don't recognize that, then we're foolish," Gordon said. "It's not all about on-track performance. Dale's in a very unique situation, he didn't necessarily ask for it, but he handles it very well. And he's got to take advantage of it and if that's what is good for the sport, then I'm glad he's at our organization."