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Earnhardt Gears Up to Drive Guard-Sponsored Cars

By Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

CHARLOTTE, N.C., Jan. 29, 2008 – As he drives its sponsored race cars at NASCAR's top auto racing competitions this year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hopes to learn more about the National Guard.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks with reporters Jan. 23, 2008, at Hendrick Motorsports headquarters outside Charlotte, N.C. Earnhardt will drive the National Guard's co-sponsored No. 88 Sprint Cup car and will join Landon Cassill to co-drive the Guard's primary-sponsored No. 5 Nationwide Series car. NASCAR's auto racing season starts in mid-February at Daytona International Speedway, Fla. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith, USAF
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"It's going to be a year-long introduction of myself to the Guard (and) how I can be an asset to them," Earnhardt said here Jan. 23.

With the 2008 NASCAR auto racing season less than a month from its first competitive laps, Earnhardt said he has hopes for a successful racing season with a new lineup of team members and sponsors, including the National Guard.

"It's just really overwhelming, everything that's happened this year to get to this point," said Earnhardt. "There's not enough hours in the day to explain everything that I have learned, everything that I have seen."

This year, Earnhardt will drive the National Guard co-sponsored No. 88 Sprint Cup Series car and will co-drive the Guard's primary-sponsored No. 5 Nationwide Series car with Landon Cassill. This is also the first year Earnhardt will drive under the Hendrick Motorsports banner.

HMS owner Rick Hendrick said he also is excited about Earnhardt's Guard sponsorship.

"He is a huge spokesman for the Guard," Hendrick said. "I think it's good to see the folks in uniform at the track. We owe them a lot, and we appreciate what (they) do to keep us free so we can go do this stuff."

Earnhardt said he is optimistic about racing with HMS, and he is working with other HMS drivers in their preparations. Seeing Guard members at the track this year, he said, will be a fun part of his race day.

"Lord knows what they have been up to or what they have been doing or what their responsibilities currently are, but for them to be at the race track and for us to be able to show them what we do and see some excitement in their face, especially when we do well, it's a lot of fun to have them along,” said the son of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, who crashed and died in the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

More popularly referred to as "Junior" by race fans, Earnhardt, one of the nation's most popular sports figures with 17 Sprint Cup wins and two Nationwide Series championships, spoke with other HMS NASCAR icons here, including Hendrick, two-time defending Sprint Cup championship driver Jimmie Johnson, as well as drivers Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears, about "accelerating into 2008."

Earnhardt will make his debut in the National Guard's sponsored cars during the Nationwide Series season opener – the Orbitz 300 – Feb. 17 at the Daytona International Speedway.

The National Guard will co-sponsor the No. 88 Sprint Cup team with Mountain Dew/Amp, which means Earnhardt will drive one of two Sprint Cup cars throughout the year: either the white and blue National Guard car or the white and green Mountain Dew/Amp car.

The Amp car will be driven for the Sprint Cup season opener Feb. 18 in the 50th Daytona 500.

Sprint Cup Series auto racing is NASCAR's highest-level competition and its most popular. NASCAR's second-highest auto racing competition is the Nationwide Series.

For NASCAR's Nationwide Series, the National Guard is a primary sponsor. Landon Cassill will drive the Nationwide Series No. 5 "Guard car" for 19 races and Earnhardt will drive it in the season opener and at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Fla., Nov. 15.

Hendrick said the teams were focused on "coming out of the gate strong." Forty-five Sprint Cup Series teams will compete to place among NASCAR's top 12 drivers who make up "The Chase" for the championship.

"If we make The Chase, we want to battle for the championship, but we know it's going to be a super tough year," Hendrick said.

For the Sprint Cup series, Earnhardt and HMS driver Casey Mears will team up on the track to help each other reach top finishes. Earnhardt said both teams are more prepared than ever before.

"I know the race cars look amazing when I go into the shop – Casey's cars, our cars – they just look so good from the inside out; it gives me a lot of excitement about the season," said Earnhardt.

The NASCAR Nationwide Series season opener will broadcast Feb. 17 at noon EST on ESPN2. The NASCAR Sprint Cup's season opener will broadcast Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. EST on Fox.

Starting in February, Guard members can go to the National Guard's racing Web site, www.ngb.army.mil/features/NASCAR, for current news, race results and photos.

(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith serves with the National Guard Bureau.)

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