Dale Earnhardt Jr. ‘uncomfortable’ with ‘being the face’ of NASCAR

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Ever since the economy started to go south in 2007, NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France has said several times that the sport needs Dale Earnhardt Jr. to earn wins and be among the best drivers out there – which would, in turn, hopefully bring NASCAR back to prosperity and increased fan and media attention.

Junior is off to the best start of his career in 2014, with a win in the season-opening Daytona 500 and back-to-back runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas.

He’s also one of only five drivers in Sprint Cup history to start off a season with three top-two finishes.

But as good as things are going for Earnhardt and the No. 88 team, at-track attendance is about the same as it has been in recent years, and Fox Sports’ NASCAR telecasts of the first three races have not shown significant gains as a result of Earnhardt’s performance thus far.

Is Earnhardt feeling a bit of pressure to essentially become the sport’s savior? He addressed that during his weekly session with the media Friday morning at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“That’s a very uncomfortable question and to get asked about it really makes me uncomfortable,” Earnhardt said when asked if he can be the one person who can elevate the sport to another level. “There are so many other drivers – there’s guys like Jimmie (Johnson) – who have done so much and accomplished much more than I have.

“They do a lot to elevate the sport. They do a lot of things that, you know, carry the sport as well or better than I do. It’s just very uncomfortable because I don’t have the accolades and the hardware that a lot of these guys have, like a championship and things like that.

“I’m comfortable with the popularity and things like that because I feel like that we do a lot and we have a great fan base and we do a lot to engage with them. But carrying the sport is a whole other conversation – or being the face of the sport is a whole other conversation. It’s a very uncomfortable position to be put in. I don’t think it’s realistic. All the drivers have a role in that and they are actively doing that.”

Earnhardt may have welcomed France’s hopes and expectations at a time when Junior admittedly wasn’t doing quite as well as he has last season and certainly since the start of this season.

But even with his massive Junior Nation of fans, Earnhardt admits he hasn’t seen much movement in NASCAR’s popularity, even with winning the sport’s biggest race for the second time in his career to start the new season.

“It’s hard for me to kind of have my finger on the pulse and know exactly how much the needle is moving,” Earnhardt said. “They say we can’t really look at the Daytona because of the rainout. The network broadcasts are about the same if not a little bit, a percentage point one way or the other.

“I guess my fans have been tuning in all along. We just enjoy what we do. I try not to really worry about – I can’t concern myself with how much I move the needle. I think that goes outside of my comfort zone and what I feel is and what I think you need to concern yourself with if you’re as an individual.

“I want the sport to be healthy and I want to do things that help the sport and make an impact on the sport. I try to do those things always taking opinions and advice on what I can do better and what I’m not doing that I could be doing to help the sport.

“You want to leave a mark of some kind. We all do. Everybody here wants to have some sort of mark left in their field and in the sport because we all care about it. There are so many personalities and other drivers and new guys coming in. It’s an ebb and flow of personalities. So, I try not to get too caught up in it. It ain’t always gonna be that way. Something could happen this weekend between two different drivers that reach far beyond what I could do, and that will be great. That’s how the sport survives. It definitely doesn’t live and breathe on everything that I’ve got going on. It would be perfectly fine without me, but I’m glad to be a part of it.”

If Earnhardt wins or finishes second on Sunday, he would tie the legendary Richard Petty for being the only drivers to start a season with four consecutive top-2 finishes.

“Anytime you do anything that Richard has done and you put yourself in the conversation with him to do with any statistic, it’s a pretty awesome accomplishment because of everything that he has ever done winning as many races as he has and running as many races as he has,” Earnhardt said. “He’s been such a fixture in the sport still today.

“Yeah, that would be awesome. Just something else we can hang our hat on and we’ve got a shot at it, man. We really run good here. I like coming here. … If we can be in a situation to do that and try to capitalize and get another win or another top three or top two or whatever we need to join Richard in that statistic, we’ll be going for it.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IMSA: Heavy news week leading into Thanksgiving holiday

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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After the weekend and before the Thanksgiving holiday this week, IMSA has rolled out a number of announcements itself, while IMSA could be set for further announcements in the weeks to come starting next week.

Here’s a roundup:

QUALIFYING AT ROAR SET FOR PIT POSITIONS, GARAGES AT ROLEX 24

Here are key notes from IMSA’s Monday release about how Sunday at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 will take on a greater significance:

  • The pit boxes and garages each team will use during the Rolex 24 will now be allocated based on fastest qualifying times set during Sunday’s third and final day of the Roar. Each of the three WeatherTech Championship classes – Prototype (P), GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) – will have a 15-minute qualifying session on Sunday, Jan. 7.
  • The fastest-qualifying Prototype will receive the first pit box on pit lane starting at pit-in and also will be assigned to the first garage in the Prototype section of the WeatherTech Championship garage. The fastest GTD car will receive the second pit box on pit lane and the first garage in the GTD section, with the fastest GTLM car receiving the third pit box and the first garage in the GTLM section.
  • New for 2018 – P and GTLM will pit together under a full course yellow. Therefore, to give class separation in the pits, P and GTLM teams are assigned pit boxes to ensure they are separated by a GTD Team.

This, coupled with the addition of the first IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda one-hour, 45-minute race with two drivers, will make this a more shaken up Roar.

REGS, REGS, GET YOUR REGS

IMSA has released the Sporting and Technical Regulations for 2018 this week. The aforementioned note about P and GTLM teams pitting together is a change from P and Prototype Challenge (PC) class cars pitting together, with GTLM and GTD together as it was this year.

Restart procedures changed will see P cars moved to the lead ahead of GT cars; this created confusion at times throughout 2017 as sometimes another class leader in PC, GTLM or GTD had been the first car behind a pace car.

Each team will be limited to one car change in-season only, subject to “force majeure.”

On the off chance a driver is racing in two cars, his or her maximum drive time will be counted cumulatively between the two cars.

There are other tweaks, of course, but most are largely procedural or within the fine print.

RATINGS REVEALED

The good news with IMSA going down from four classes to three for 2018 is that only one designated pro-am class remains in the form of GT Daytona, which requires at least one Silver (or Bronze) full-season driver alongside the designated pro. Those sneaky “Super Silvers” remain an invaluable asset for using his or her results to their benefit.

The FIA released the initial driver ratings for 2018 this week with a few changes, some young pros going up from Silver to Gold and others getting their request to get downgraded from Gold to Silver approved. Drivers have a couple weeks to appeal if they so desire.

Here’s your friendly reminder of what drivers can be in what GTD cars for the first two races at Daytona and Sebring:

  • Daytona (5 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) or five (5) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.
  • Sebring (4 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.

MAZDA KEEPS ON TESTING, CLOSES ON ANNOUNCEMENTS

The Los Angeles Auto Show, held after Thanksgiving, is a likely landing spot for Mazda Team Joest to reveal, officially, its revised “Evo” version of the Mazda RT24-P and its driver lineup for the 2018 season. While most of the Prototype class lineups (DPi and LMP2-spec cars) have been revealed, Mazda’s has been an exception. In the interim, not long after its Daytona test late last month, they’ve also been testing at Sebring.

FROM SPACE CENTER TO DOWN UNDER

Jordan Taylor undertook testing of a different kind not long ago at, of all places, the Kennedy Space Center. One of this year’s Prototype class champions was undertaking a straight line test in his No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R. Taylor being Taylor, the moment couldn’t pass without him winning at social media (see third tweet).

Taylor goes from down a long runway to down under, visiting his first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship race this weekend at its season finale in Newcastle.

‘MAKING OF A CHAMPION’ PIECES ROLL OUT

The fourth installment of IMSA’s “making of a champion” series highlights Jordan Taylor, who co-drove with brother Ricky to the Prototype class championship this year. These two are part of four done by IMSA so far, along with Pato O’Ward (PC) and Christina Nielsen (GTD). More should follow in the coming weeks.

SPEAKING OF CHAMPS, HINDMAN, AGOSTINI, PRESTIGE WIN LAMBORGHINI WORLD FINAL

The Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Final was held last weekend at the Imola circuit in Italy and the American Prestige Performance team won the World Final overall, with co-drivers Trent Hindman and Riccardo Agostini.

The World Final brings together teams from North America, Europe and Asia that campaign the spec Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2 in Super Trofeo regional competition. Hindman and Agostini got the weekend off on the right foot by winning the North American championship first, then followed it up at the World Final itself to topple all other domestic and international entries.

You might remember we profiled Hindman last month, as the 22-year-old’s star in the sports car world is clearly on the rise.

Somehow, someway, at the end of the day today we received the title 2017 Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Champions. Race 2 was not perfect and much more nerve racking than we would have hoped but fortunately in the end the job was done. I am honored to be sharing this with @rickyagostini as well as the entire @prestigeperfctr @waynetaylorracing team and I thank them for their incredible effort all year. With this result, we are the first ever American team to win the Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Championship overall. 3/4 overall wins along with the Super Trofeo North America and World titles marks the end of a successful 2017 campaign. Back to reality tomorrow. Thank you all for following us along on this incredible journey.

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