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Dale Earnhardt Jr. rides high into Phoenix race, and NASCAR loves it

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- His qualifying laps finished, Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed from his car and walked briskly down pit road toward the garage at Phoenix International Raceway.

Earnhardt moved quickly because he was instantly surrounded by a dozen fans seeking autographs or to snap his picture, and they hustled to keep pace with him.

Had he stopped, the crowd would have swelled and Earnhardt would have fallen behind schedule.

NASCAR this year unveiled major changes in its playoff and qualifying formats in hopes of raising the sport's popularity, which has dipped in recent years after surging in the mid-2000s.

But it's the immensely popular Earnhardt, and his victory a week ago in the Daytona 500, that could give big league stock car racing the boost it seeks.

Earnhardt winning NASCAR's crown-jewel race was "great for the sport, it's great for him," said four-time Sprint Cup series champion Jeff Gordon, an Earnhardt teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.

Earnhardt, 39, will try to maintain his momentum Sunday at the one-mile Phoenix track, where the series holds its second race of the season.

A two-time winner at Phoenix, Earnhardt starts fifth in the 43-car field. Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, starts on the pole position.

Because of NASCAR rules changes this year, Earnhardt might well revisit Victory Lane this year while making another bid for his first Cup championship.

Under one of the changes, a victory during the Cup series' 26-race season virtually guarantees a berth in the 10-race Chase for the Cup title playoff in the fall.

So Earnhardt effectively already has qualified for the 16-driver playoff, meaning that he and his crew chief, Steve Letarte, can be extra aggressive trying to win one of the next 25 races.

They can "push the envelope of your [car] setups, your pit strategy, how you're driving," Gordon said. "That allows you to continue to build that confidence."

Earnhardt provided an added benefit to NASCAR after the Daytona 500 when he ended his absence from Twitter and joined the social media site, which has a pronounced following in NASCAR. Within a few days the number of Earnhardt's Twitter followers soared above 525,000.

"For a guy who is that popular, it's a really easy way to interact without having to create a frenzy that happens when he comes around somewhere in public," said Kevin Harvick, who won the Daytona 500 in 2007.

It's long been an article of faith that if Earnhardt won races, NASCAR would benefit. But until a week ago, Earnhardt had won only twice in the last six years despite driving for Hendrick, one of NASCAR's richest teams.

Indeed, his inability to reach Victory Lane more often was cited as one reason why NASCAR's popularity had ebbed.

Earnhardt, after all, not only is popular with hardcore NASCAR fans, he's also perhaps the most familiar NASCAR driver to casual fans. That's because he's the son of Dale Earnhardt, the legendary NASCAR champion whose death in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500 drew national attention.

The winless drought also took its toll on the younger Earnhardt. He felt the burden not only of disappointing his legion of fans in "Junior Nation" but also team owner Rick Hendrick, whose other drivers besides Gordon include six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne.

"Everybody was saying I was finished, whether I was going to do anything ever again," Earnhardt said last week. "I can't even begin to tell you how grateful I am and thankful I am that. ... Rick Hendrick didn't give up on me."

Earnhardt also noted that some critics said "I didn't have the killer instinct, I didn't have the stuff that I needed to drive to win a championship, I didn't want it bad enough."

"I never was bothered by being called 'overrated' because it's such a broad term," he said. "When people really pick at your determination, your drive, your hunger, that bothered me more than anything else."

Earnhardt began pulling out of his slump last year when he had one of his most consistent seasons. He earned 22 top-10 finishes, qualified for the Chase and finished fifth in the title standings, his highest finish since 2006. But he didn't win a race.

After a 61/2-hour rain delay, the drought ended Feb. 23 when Earnhardt charged to his second Daytona 500 victory, and his 20th career victory, in his No. 88 Chevrolet.

That set off a three-day cross-country media tour, including an appearance on David Letterman's "Late Show," during which Earnhardt's exuberance never waned.

"I've never seen a guy with a permanent smile on his face like this before," Gordon said.

Earnhardt's victory also was felt at NASCAR tracks around the country.

"We saw huge renewal energy" after the Daytona 500, said Gillian Zucker, president of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, referring to people again buying tickets for this year's Cup race there March 23. "People feel very passionate about Junior."

Without disclosing specifics, she said "I expect attendance [at Fontana] to be significantly more than it was last year." About 80,000 spectators attended last year's race.

Earnhardt credits a good part of his rebound to Letarte, who's in his fourth full season as Earnhardt's crew chief. But Letarte is leaving after this season to become a NASCAR television analyst.

In the meantime, "our confidence couldn't be higher," Earnhardt said. "Confidence is a great thing. It's half of the battle, you know, being confident in what you're doing."

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

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