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Junior's got a new car and something left to prove
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - If sentiment could fuel a race car, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would win the 50th running of The Great American Race by a heartbeat.

NASCAR boss Brian France wants it to happen because Junior is the franchise. He said just that last month, calling Earnhardt the sport's Los Angeles Lakers.

"We're no different than that. If Dale Jr. has a big year," France said with typical understatement during his state-of-the-state speech, "that will help."

Fox wants it because every time Dale Sr.'s second son and namesake wins, the needle on the TV ratings box jumps. And Junior's fans, the sport's biggest tribe by far, want it to prove his drought is less about being overrated than driving underpowered cars the last few years at DEI. Heck, even a few of his rivals in the beleaguered U.S. auto industry wouldn't mind seeing Junior pull his Chevy into Victory Lane, if only because that means a Toyota won't win.

The Japanese cars look especially formidable in just their second year of competing at NASCAR's top level, stoking fears that dominance in the showrooms could extend to the racetrack.

None of them, though, have anything on Junior.

Earnhardt has a new team, a new car, a new sponsor and plenty to prove. Nothing would signal a cleaner break from the past better than winning NASCAR's Super Bowl a second time, right after joining Hendrick Motorsports on the rebound from DEI, the team his father created and left for his third wife and widow, Teresa, to run as she pleases.

"It makes you feel like you've got to be the 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? That's where you want to be," he added, "other than holding the championship trophy."

NASCAR is at a crossroads, struggling with sagging TV ratings and selling out fewer venues. Managing the sport's explosive growth has proven every bit as tricky as achieving it, with nearly every change, from the launch of a playoff system to the crackdown on drivers' conduct, drawing yowls from old-school fans.

But a win by Junior could help bridge that gap, too. For all the talk about the good old days, the reality is that the racing has never been more competitive.

The Daytona 500 produces more passes than most. Restrictor-plate races limit every car's horsepower, a feature that makes for close racing and plenty of drafting and bumping. The finish of last year's race might have been the best last lap since the bootleggers and backwoodsmen moved the circus from ramshackle dirt ovals to asphalt superspeedways.

Dale Sr., perhaps the best restrictor-plate racer ever, was killed in a last-lap crash in 2001, in the debut race of NASCAR's first national TV contract with Fox. Instead of dampening interest in what was still a niche sport, that tragedy, and the ensuing debate it touched off over the safety of stock-car racing, only stoked it. But although most of Senior's fans seamlessly made the segue to Junior's camp, he hasn't won anything meaningful since the summer of 2006.

So the move to Hendrick Motorsports has already paid off with victories in the Budweiser Shootout and a qualifying race at Daytona this week. But unless Junior adds today's crown jewel to his haul, it's going to be a tougher sell than ever.