Earnhardt To Drive Number 88 Car

DALLAS (AP) -- When Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to drive for Rick Hendrick, the car owner didn't have to worry about funding the car.

Sponsors immediately lined up for an opportunity to align their brands with NASCAR's most popular driver, and Hendrick could have started a bidding war. But he instead stayed within his own organization, showing loyalty to his existing relationships with PepsiCo. and The National Guard.

Both companies will sponsor Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevrolet next season.

``I got phone calls from so many companies, some of them in the sport that I never talked to and some of them I had no idea even had any interest in the sport,'' Hendrick said Wednesday. ``It was just phenomenal the amount of interest that was there.''

The new sponsors feel they are a good fit for Earnhardt, who was casually drinking a 16-ounce Mountain Dew Amp Energy drink during Wednesday's unveiling.

``They got me up at 5 o'clock this morning, so I've been able to test the effectiveness of the product,'' he joked. ``I'm pleased to be sitting here and not yawning.''

The new alliances mark a clear shift from the party-boy image Budweiser cultivated that made Junior a phenomenon. Now that he's 32 and growing up, Earnhardt is turning into a corporate pitchman.

The new sponsors will be joined by a new car number. Earnhardt has driven the No. 8 Chevrolet full-time for DEI since 2000, and he tried to take the No. 8 with him to Hendrick. But stepmother Teresa Earnhardt refused to give up her rights to it, and Mark Martin and Aric Almirola will co-drive it next year with sponsorship from the U.S. Army.

The No. 88 was used by Robert Yates Racing, which asked NASCAR to transfer the number to Hendrick for Earnhardt.

``Ralph Earnhardt drove the No. 88 Olds in 1957 and because of this number's history with the Earnhardt family, I felt car No. 88 should continue with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.,'' Robert Yates said in a statement.

In addition to new sponsorships, Earnhardt signed personal services contracts this summer with Sony and Adidas, and unveiled a personally designed candy bar on Tuesday in Chicago.

``I think there is a little bit of a maturation of Dale Jr. as a brand,'' said Mark Dyer, CEO of Motorsports Authentics, the largest marketer of NASCAR merchandise.

``I think they were ready to go in a different direction with his image. With the change to Hendrick, they were ready to switch their alignments and partners and I think that's a healthy evolution.''

Earnhardt insists he won't stray from his down-to-earth personality.

``People understand what our model has been since we've started, that we'd be ourselves,'' he said. ``You've had a chance to get to know me and you know how I do things. They knew coming in that I like being myself, and being honest and telling the truth.

``The truth is hard to hide from, so it's easier just to tell it and be honest with your fans and be honest with yourself. I think that they're comfortable with that, and I'll be comfortable already working with them.''

It's what made him a natural fit for Pepsi, which was attracted to Earnhardt because he's a genuine Mountain Dew drinker.

``He's very popular and he's very successful, but more than that what appeals to us is he's an authentic person,'' said Dawn Hudson, CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America.

Thayer Lavielle, who runs the marketing and brand development at Earnhardt's JR Motorsports, said Junior's popularity affords him the opportunity to choose partners carefully.

``Dale Jr. is not a corporate pitchman, that's just not who he is,'' Lavielle said. ``He happens to be the most popular driver, he happens to be an excellent race car driver, and he has the good fortune to be with Hendrick Motorsports next year. That all affords him the opportunity to be a great corporate pitchman.''


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