Earnhardt Celeb Down Under, Stewart Stalls Contract Extension Talks

Charlotte, NC – It only took one day for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to regain the NASCAR spotlight from his fellow racing luminaries who were saluted all last week in New York City. Unlike his high-speed brethren, however, Earnhardt?s exploits don?t just dominate the nation?s sports pages ? he?s front page news internationally.

The type was hardly dry on the stories surrounding the NASCAR Nextel Cup Awards Banquet at the Waldorf Astoria in the Big Apple when Junior jumped back into the public eye showing up at an Australian V8 Supercar race this weekend in Philip Island, Australia. Earnhardt, who has legions of fans everywhere, came in the back door of the track with little fanfare at slipping on to pit road to see the cars and mingle with the teams.

The buzz his appearance created in the garage and in the Aussie press again drives home the point of how Earnhardt has transcended racing into celebrity or ?rock star? status. Thanks to a zillion dollar legacy in name, his own personal appeal, success on the track and off it with mainstream deals in all manner of consumer products ? Earnhardt is the king of North American racers. Only Formula 1 drivers make more money ? and few, if any, can claim Earnhardt?s celebrity thanks to worldwide exposure in television commercials and music videos.

It will be an interesting year for Earnhardt the driver as he ascends into the Hendrick camp ? home of the premiere NASCAR formula racing effort ? a teammate to Jimmie and Jeffy, and winners of 18 of 36 Cup races this season.

The pressure will be on, thanks in large part that Earnhardt has grown to fame outside of NASCAR. If he wins regularly ? which this writer thinks he will ? Earnhardt will morph to even greater recognition and celebrity outside the sport. His legions of race fans, the ones who just voted him NASCAR?s Most Popular Driver for a fifth-straight time, will get larger as well.

On the other hand, if he fails to win regularly in 2008 and 2009, the lights focused on of his celebrity will be even brighter because there?s nothing better than a public figure in peril, right? Why do you think we have E Network on television? It?s to cover all the ?good gone bad? stories.

Here?s hoping Earnhardt isn?t one of them.

Stewart Contract Extension Stalled –

Among some of the more interesting news to come out of the week that was NASCAR in New York City was that Tony Stewart had put off negations on a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing for the time being.

Stewart ? who is signed with JGR through 2009 ? claimed he was flattered with the JGR gesture but that he needed some time off before they could have any further discussion. Can?t blame Stewart for that ? 48 weeks on the road will do that to a guy.

Then again, talk of Stewart leaving the Cup ranks (2004 Tony Stewart book by John Close at right) after 2009 have been circulating the garage area since mid-season. He?s done Cup his way and excelled at it. Bulled his way through it. Is it so hard to believe he doesn?t have ambitions outside of Cup?

If he?s fed up with Cup, Stewart?s not showing it. He has, however, expanded his portfolio outside of NASCAR to include several race track and team ownerships and countless personal endorsement deals. He?s also branched into the media ? as silly as that seems ? and has cultivated a very popular satellite radio show. Yet another career avenue for Tony after racing? Wouldn?t that be a twist?

Finally, Stewart can drive whatever he wants, any time he wants until he?s tired of doing it. He has it all. It?s an enviable position to be in.

So why negotiate now?

Stewart is cagey enough to recognize his position. He also knows there?s one huge trump card still to be played in this high-speed NASCAR play ? JGR?s move to Toyota this season. The performance of the team under the Toyota flag ? good or bad ? over 2008-2009 may also have something to do with Stewart?s decision to continue to play nice and stay or bolt for other opportunities outside of NASCAR whatever Cup we?ll be calling it at the start of the 2010 season.

JGR, meanwhile, doesn?t really have to push Stewart too hard either because they have wunderkind Joey Logano in the wings. He could be the next great NASCAR star and JGR knows that. By 2010, Logano will be 20 and on stun in a Toyota, which by then will definitely have the Cup thing figured out.

So don?t look for Stewart?s contract extension to be signed anytime soon as both parties have their backs covered and there are still some cards to be played.

Still Racin? ?

Augie Grill won the 40th-Annual Snowball Derby in Pensacola, FL this weekend. Grill beat Close Finishes favorite Matt Hawkins to the checkered flag at the Five Flags Speedway half-mile oval.

Seeing the results of the Derby always reminds me of good buddy and killer late model racer Rich Bickle. Bickle won the Derby five times in the first 32 running?s of the event (nobody else has ever won it more than twice). That?s pretty big considering the list of Derby winners includes Donnie Allison, Pete Hamilton, Darrell Waltrip, Butch Miller, Jody Ridley, Ed Howe, Freddy Fryer, Ted Musgrave, Rick Crawford, Jeff Purvis, Bobby Gill and Gary St. Amant.

One of the biggest thrills of this writer?s racing career was spotting one of Bickle?s Derby victories. It?s a race every short-track pavement racer wants to win and one every fan should attend at least once.

Who wouldn?t want to compete in or watch an event that had an amazing 125 entries from 17 states ? 68 of them for the Pro Late Model ?Snowflake 100? on Saturday evening and the rest for Sunday?s 300-lap Snowball Derby?

Some of those entries proved to be pretty ?creative? as 16 of the 125 were disqualified (DQ) for technical inspection violations. Among those were the cars of former Derby winner Steven Wallace and NASCAR Cup driver Kyle Busch. Several of the banished, including Wallace and Busch, cried foul and trashed the tech procedures, pretty much business as usual for the Derby which always seems to have more than its share of tech issues.

Finally, the Derby all but puts a cap on the pavement racing season for most of the country? at least big events. For the NASCAR crowd, it?s a couple of weeks at home through the holidays before things crank up with 2008 season testing at Daytona. Others, like ARCA test this month at DIS.

For most of the short trackers, Hooters, ASA, the weekly crowd, it?s a wrap until Daytona Speedweeks in Florida next February. For others, like the Midwest and the Northeast weekly competitors, racing starts again when the snow is gone in April and May.

Anyway, the Derby all-but marked the end of the 2007 season. Look for the season-ending Close Finishes series ?Top-10 Things? over the next few weeks to ring out the year and bring in the 2008 racing season.

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