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Spot News Non-Daily
SECOND PLACE

‘Say it ain’t so, Junior’
Mike Hembree, NASCAR Scene

Only moments after word leaked that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had agreed to a five-year deal to drive for Hendrick Motorsports, Internet racing sites were aflame with the angst of Earnhardt Nation.

            Examples:

            “I’ll never wear an 8 cap again.”

            “I hope like hell that you never win that championship you seem to think is owed to you.”

            “I cannot pull for JR if he is under HMS.”

            “This sucks. … Junior driving for the enemy.”

            And those are ones that are printable.

            There is no question that the firmament of the sport shook when Earnhardt Jr. confirmed his decision in a June 13 press conference. For many, it was like Ted Williams playing for the New York Yankees, Brett Favre throwing passes for the Dallas Cowboys, Ronald Reagan endorsing Democrats. Cats sleeping with dogs. Paris Hilton taking trigonometry.

            It was, for some Earnhardt Jr. fans, The Very Last Thing In The World They Thought Would Happen.

            At Michigan International Speedway over the Citizens Bank 400 weekend, Earnhardt Jr.’s move was the talk of the garage, the infield and the top-of-the-line grandstand seats. Everyone had an opinion; some had signs.

            “Junior: Say It Ain’t So,” one in the infield read. Another: “Finally, A Hendrick Driver I Like.”

            Although parts of Earnhardt Nation clearly were horrified at the news and immediately dropped Junior from his place in the human race, a very unscientific survey indicated that the majority of Earnhardt Jr. fans planned to stay the course, at least until they see what 2008 brings. It will be in February at Daytona that the reality will hit, as Earnhardt Jr. moves in beside Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears for those smiley team photos.

            “I’m going to pull for Junior no matter where he is, whether he’s driving for Hendrick, Ganassi, whoever,” said David Newark of Cleveland, N.C. “I wanted him to go to Childress, but maybe he doesn’t want to be in his [father, Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s] shadow. You have to respect a man for that.

            “I’ve heard a lot of fans’ comments. A lot of them don’t like it. Right now, it’s going to show who the true Junior fans are. It will tell all. But I’m going to stay with him even if he’s driving a go-kart.”

            As for Earnhardt Jr., he said at MIS that the early fan response has been positive.

            “The fans that pull for me have been real supportive,” he said. “Even the fans that have no interest in pulling for me have been supportive. You’re going to have the positives and negatives in everything.

            “But I’m really surprised about how supportive the fans have been. I kind of thought that was up in the air. I didn’t know what the reaction was going to be. They’ve always been supportive in the past, and certainly this is a little bit bigger deal than anything else I’ve ever done, and they’ve continued to be supportive.”

            Decidedly, Joe Slatton of Indianapolis was not. He wore an Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt with the No. 8 crossed out by a black marker. A Sharpie? Maybe bigger.

            “That’s it for me,” he said. “I was a fan of his and his old man’s, but I can’t go along with this. I would have taken anybody but Hendrick. This is like he’s being a turncoat to everything the Earnhardt name has stood for.”

            Michelle Jackson of Pittsburgh, Pa., was in the MIS infield with seven friends and said her group was evenly split between Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon fans. A gold necklace with a 24 pendant made her choice clear.

            “I’ll be happy if Junior wins races for Hendrick, but I’m not going to pull for him,” she said. “I think it’s going to be good. I think he can be a good driver. I think Teresa [Earnhardt, owner of DEI] wasn’t giving him what his dad would have wanted him to have. It was more like she was not putting money into the team, so I think this will be a good move for him. It’s either going to make him or break him now that he gets the good equipment.”

            Jesse Caszatt of St. Johns, Mich., had parked his Earnhardt Jr.-red Interna-tional bus in the MIS infield, where he still flew the Junior flag despite the news of the week.

            “It’s very disappointing,” he said. “I would have liked to see him go to Childress or Ginn. We’ll see how it pans out in the end. I’m wondering about the number and everything.

            “I don’t know if I can cheer for a Hendrick car. I really don’t know if I can.

            “I hope he doesn’t get beer cans thrown at him. You know, they like throwing the beer cans at the Hendrick guys.”