'Junior' Set to Drive National Guard Car in 2008

By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

DALLAS, Sept. 20, 2007 - Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose family's name is part and parcel with American motorsports legend, will drive the Chevrolet the National Guard will sponsor in NASCAR's top-level Sprint Cup series in 2008.

Earnhardt -- "Junior" to the millions who follow the sport -- will drive the 88 car for Hendrick Motorsports' new team that will have PepsiCo products' Mountain Dew and AMP Energy as its other major sponsors, officials announced during a nationally televised news conference here yesterday.

The popularity of the Earnhardt name raises the Guard's participation in one of America's two most popular spectator sports, the National Football League being the other, to a new level, said Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, director of the Army National Guard.

NASCAR appeals to the same age group, 18-24, that is the prime recruiting group for the Guard and the other military services, Vaughn pointed out. The Army Guard has to recruit about 70,000 new people every year, he said at the Dallas Convention Center.

"If the strength of our recruiting is the same place that you run NASCAR, which it is, and if Dale Earnhardt Jr., is the most popular of all the NASCAR drivers, which he is, then you would think that would make a difference in the number of people who will follow the Guard, the Guard car, and maybe effectively think about joining our team," he said.

"And that's all we ask him to do. Dale will have an enormous, enormous impact on that effort," Vaughn predicted. "People will look at the partnership this way: 'The Guard is a great way to serve. It's a first-class organization. And I like Dale Earnhardt Jr. So does the Guard. I'm going to have to think about that.'"

"I think it's important to support the military, especially now," Earnhardt said about his new affiliation with the National Guard.

Todd Bodine and Greg Biffle, who finished second in the Nextel Cup Series in 2005, have been previous Guard car drivers. Casey Mears is this year's driver.

Earnhardt, 32, has won 17 Cup-level races and two NASCAR Busch Series championships. He is the son of racing legend Dale Earnhardt Sr., who was killed in a crash on the final corner of the final lap of the NASCAR season's inaugural race, the Daytona 500, in February 2001. He is the grandson and nephew of, respectively, NASCAR pioneers Ralph Earnhardt and Morgan Shepherd. His mother's father, Robert Gee, built NASCAR cars.

Earnhardt will replace Mears as the driver for the Guard car and will add his name and pedigree to the Hendrick lineup of dominating drivers that includes Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Mears will replace Kyle Busch, who is leaving the Hendrick team for the Joe Gibbs team, after one season as the No. 25 Guard/GMAC Chevrolet car driver, and Earnhardt will begin racing for Hendrick Motorsports after severing his ties with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company that his father founded.

Earnhardt announced in June that he signed a five-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports. His new car number is no accident. He has driven the No. 8 Chevrolet since he entered the Cup Series in 1999. His grandfather raced with that number, as well as 88, and Dale Sr. drove the 8 car early in his career. Earnhardt family politics, however, precluded Junior from bringing the famed single-digit number to the Hendrick team.

"We considered every number with 8 in it that was available," he told a room filled with media and Texas Army Guard recruiters, distinctive in their Army combat uniforms.

Earnhardt is currently in 13th place, and out of this year's 12-car chase for the Nextel Cup, after finishing 16th in the Sylvania 300 on Sept. 16 at the New Hampshire International Speedway. He has started on the pole, in first place, once this season but has yet to win a race. He has finished among the top five six times, and he has been among the top 10 drivers in 10 races.

He did qualify for the chase last year, beginning the season's 10-race championship series in sixth place and finishing fifth, 147 points behind Cup victor Jimmie Johnson.

Earnhardt is joining the Hendricks team that has ruled the NASCAR roost in 2007. Johnson and Gordon, with 10 victories and 30 top-five finishes between them, are tied for the lead with 5,210 points after 27 races. Kyle Busch, with one victory and a total of 22 top-five and top-10 finishes, is fifth in the Nextel Cup standings.

This year's Guard car driver, Mears, is in 15th place after his strong performance at New Hampshire, where he started 15th. He has one victory in the Guard/GMAC Chevrolet, coincidentally in the Memorial Day Coca-Cola 600, which raised money for the families of U.S. military troops. Ten drivers raced in cars painted in military camouflage patterns to signal their support for that cause.