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Junior has opportunities, but ...

Tools

By Ngozi Ekeledo

( Marty Smith/ ESPN.com ) -- The evolution of an athlete's business philosophy as he or she ascends from aspiring prospect to established competitor is an interesting study. Each athlete is unique and has different interests and different brands, and therefore relies on different methodologies.

In NASCAR, many of today's stars began as blue-collar kids who just wanted to drive faster than the next guy. The opportunity to race automobiles for a living is the lone goal.

But with success comes money and name-recognition. And with money and name-recognition comes opportunity. And opportunity requires strategy -- or opportunity becomes a bad investment.

Few drivers in NASCAR, if any, have more opportunity than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"Dale's popularity is the one thing that sets us apart from everybody else in the NASCAR business," said Earnhardt's sister and chief business advisor, Kelley Earnhardt Miller. "I would say Jeff Gordon is a really close second. He's been in this business a lot of years and garnered a lot of fans, and he's put himself out there in a lot of different places to do a lot of different things. But I'd say, definitely, Dale has probably the best opportunity, by far."

Naturally, that dynamic proves lucrative.

Forbes Magazine recently named Earnhardt, NASCAR's highest-paid driver for the fifth-straight year, at upward of $25 million between his salary and percentage of race-winnings. On top of that, according to Forbes, Earnhardt's off-track endorsement earnings in 2012 were an estimated $13 million, given his personal deals with Chevrolet, Goody's, Nationwide and Wrangler, among others.

Earnhardt's business philosophy is as simple as his empire is diverse: Align with the right partners, be authentic at all costs, never overthink it and always have fun. With that fundamental approach -- and a boost from unrivaled popularity among NASCAR fans -- his business portfolio is thriving.

"He's matured a lot, in the way he thinks about business and what he's looking for to carry on the Earnhardt name and his own business interests, in terms of after racing," Miller said.

When Earnhardt first arrived in NASCAR, his idea of a diversified portfolio centered on the number of victories he could accumulate at various racetracks. If he won enough, he figured, he might build a resume that would secure a decent ride for 15 or 20 years.

But by his fifth Sprint Cup season, Junior felt he had established himself as a driver, and built a sustainable racing career for the foreseeable future. At the time he was fresh off what is still the best season of his life: six wins, 16 top-5s and a fifth-place points finish. That's when he began to dabble in business interests outside the cockpit of his racecar.

"Around 2004 I felt like I accomplished quite a bit, and I didn't think I'd get run out of here like a no-talent hack," Earnhardt said. "When you first start driving, you don't understand the value of a dollar. You don't understand how far a dollar will get me when I'm 50 years old.

"Five years into your career you're starting to understand it. OK, I need to save this amount. I need to do this to be comfortable. I need to be smart here and put away a nest egg and build on that. You take baby steps. I did."

He started simply, by putting money in the bank and playing the stock market just a bit. But his involvement in investments was small until recently, when he had the opportunity to pair himself with established partners, such as Rick Hendrick in the car dealership business and BAR Management Group, with partner Bob Durkin in the restaurant/bar business.

He partnered with Hendrick last year to buy a pair of car dealerships in Tallahassee, Fla., one of which sells Chevrolets, the other Buicks, GMCs and Cadillacs. Junior and Hendrick chose Tallahassee, Miller explained, because it's a "single-point market," meaning Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet has no Chevy competition whatsoever in the city.

"There's a lot of Earnhardt fans down there, too," Miller chuckled. "That doesn't hurt."

Miller noted that her little brother has taken an especially keen interest in the dealerships, and she is impressed with the due diligence he does to educate himself on the business. He has visited the dealerships twice since he purchased them in August.

With BAR Management, he owns two Whisky River bars, one in Charlotte, N.C., and another in Jacksonville, Fla. A third Whisky River location, in Long Island, N.Y., is in the planning stages, Miller said. The Charlotte location paid for itself quickly. The Jacksonville location is nearly paid for.

"Those things are a new source of income that you never ever imagined you'd have," Earnhardt said. "Those things are making as much money, as much income, as what you make driving a racecar. And they become as important or as lucrative.

"I still don't really see it clearly yet, but you start to see a future past driving racecars. For the longest time you don't know what the hell you'll do when you're not driving anymore. You have no clue what's next. You want to be an asset to something. You want to be important to something, because you've been driving racecars and doing this important job -- and it's a good feeling to be important and feel needed by something.

"And you want to continue that feeling past driving your car. You want to do something that matters to people. So you start to view these things as ways of doing that. That dealership is something I can see myself being involved in until I'm 70 or 80 years old, and if I'm a good dude and do people right, I'll matter to people."

Miller, who has managed all of Junior's investments, money, business and contracts throughout his career, notices readily Junior's new appreciation for his business future.

"I see a maturity about his interest in business," Miller said. "He's started to ask a lot more questions about how things work, and why we do things. I appreciate that he's trusted me all this time just to handle it, but he's starting to dive deeper into it than ever before.

"I don't know. Maybe he's thinking, what if something happens to [Miller], and I won't be here to handle it? I've really enjoyed that he's trusted me so much, but it's a lot of weight to carry to make decisions. When he's very involved it's a lot better because he's aware and he's in the decision-making process."

Aside from the dealerships and bars, Earnhardt owns a television production company called Hammerhead Entertainment and a Nationwide Series team called JR Motorsports. He employs five people full-time and two part-time on the TV production side, and some 75 full-time on the racing side -- 40 that physically work on the cars and roughly 35 in marketing, IT, accounting, facilities and transportation.

Hammerhead was a smart play, given that his production company produces most of the television commercials in which he stars, and produces spots for other drivers' sponsors, as well. The Hammerhead client list includes the North Carolina-based grocery chain Harris Teeter, Ingersoll-Rand, AFLAC, Office Depot, Farmer's Insurance and Sprint, among others.

As a racecar driver, it's good to practice and to talk about driver safety on the highway, and doing smart and safe things behind the wheel. It's a responsibility we carry. But, man, I feel the same every time I do these commercials. I feel like a rookie every time. I never aspired to be an actor. And once I leave here I'll forget everything I learned today.

Given Earnhardt's popularity -- NASCAR fans have voted him the sport's most-popular driver for 10 straight years -- he is asked to participate in countless commercials and promotions. At any given moment you might see him in any number of Wrangler, Tax Slayer or Nationwide advertisements.

Being the face of the company is a significant part of the business of being Dale Earnhardt Jr.

One example is a brisk mid-March day at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt is shooting a new commercial for Sprint to promote a mobile application called "Drive First." Drive First detects movement faster than 10 mph and locks the phone to prevent texting and calling. It then sends an automatic text message reply notifying the sender that the receiver is driving, and will contact the sender later. The spot will be unveiled on television in April in conjunction with distracted driving month.

"I'm glad they asked me first," Earnhardt said when asked about Sprint choosing him for the spot. "I guess that means they look upon me as a good messenger, as someone people will listen to. I mean, you don't send the Devil to do God's work."

After more than a decade of starring in myriad commercials, Earnhardt is an able actor -- a natural -- says the Sprint commercial's director, Scott Vincent. He would know. For three years Vincent directed The Chappell Show. Initially on this day, Junior was too energetic. Tone it down, he's told. The magic, Vincent explains, is in the pauses and the subtle expressions. Junior nods.

Per Vincent's direction, Earnhardt's eyes are squinty, expression stern, mannerisms direct, sense of humor dry. His face wants to grin. His mind thwarts the smile. He is bantering with a pair of crewmembers in the garage about a text message he didn't send. One of the crewmen is flummoxed by the concept of receiving a text from Earnhardt stating Earnhardt can't text. The script is akin to "Who's On First," of Abbott and Costello fame.

"He takes direction really well," Vincent says. "I didn't know he'd be as good as he is. A lot of times with celebrity talent you're on Take 25 before you get close. We did eight."

Vincent has worked with athletes before, including Tiger Woods and Rusty Wallace, and he directed the "This Is SportsCenter" commercial with Jimmie Johnson, the pick ax and the speed bump.

Six hours are blocked out of Earnhardt's schedule for this shoot. Much of that is spent waiting. While plowing through a plate of sushi in an RV adjacent to the shoot, he discusses the responsibility of his popularity.

"As a racecar driver, it's good to practice and to talk about driver safety on the highway, and doing smart and safe things behind the wheel," he said. "It's a responsibility we carry.

"But, man, I feel the same every time I do these commercials. I feel like a rookie every time. I never aspired to be an actor. And once I leave here I'll forget everything I learned today."

A week later he is at yet another shoot, this time for Quaker State oil. Between takes, he discusses another application to which his name is tied, this one for sponsor AMP Energy. It is called "PowerDash," and offers Dale Jr.-themed prizes to its participants.

Junior recorded voiceovers and narrative for the game, which, again, goes directly back to Hammerhead Entertainment. He can record the voiceovers at his own place, saving him time and making him money.

"Remember Spy Hunter when we were kids? It's like that," he said. "You have a little racecar on the bottom of the screen and there's a road, and you're driving down the road, and you tilt the phone to turn.

"The controls are pretty simple -- that's always a stickler with me on any kind of phone game, the controls and interface can be kind of cumbersome. But this one's pretty simple. You're driving, and some things you want to hit and some things you don't want to hit."

As the user progresses on the road, he or she accrues points. Top performers win memorabilia, autographs, fire suits and a VIP NASCAR experience. The grand prize is a 2013 Chevrolet Camaro convertible.

He is proud of this, and rattles off this information quickly, succinctly. He is well practiced in the ways of talking points and and time management.

"I don't have to get in there and do much other than make sure everybody's personalities and attitudes mesh," he said of his business leadership role. "But it's not a big deal. It doesn't take a whole lot of time. I don't like to get in the middle of stuff that you've got to babysit."

Managing The Brand: Junior

Earnhardt can't babysit. No time. So he has people to babysit for him. He has no choice. Make no mistake: Earnhardt has to leverage his brand for the greater good of his companies. He is a busy man. Here is a sample of his schedule the week before the 2013 Daytona 500, provided to ESPN.com by JR Motorsports:

Monday and Tuesday: Testing 88 Cup Car in Nashville Superspeedway.

Wednesday: 48/88 shop team commitment at Hendrick Motorsports.

Thursday and Friday: New York City for NASCAR obligations/media

Tuesday: Depart Statesville, N.C., for Galveston, Texas, for Make-A-Wish. Depart Texas, fly to Phoenix for four-hour media tour. Return to Statesville.

To manage that, Miller and her team at JR Motorsports keep detailed spreadsheets and lists of the companies they work with and what each commitment is for Junior, as well as how his name is being used by each company.

"It's our job to keep that under control and not dilute the brand and not over-leverage the brand, but at the same time, keeping our doors open as a Nationwide team, which at times has been a difficult thing to do over the past three or four years with the economy," Miller said.

She further explained that to manage Junior's schedule, she and her team say "no, thank you." A lot.

Authenticity. He is what you see. He doesn't try to be anybody that he's not. Everything we associate ourselves with we keep that in mind when we're thinking about partnering with someone or endorsing something. It's got to be something that Dale would do himself, that's authentic to him and doesn't seem out of character for him. He's down-to-earth and relatable.

"The way it's working now in sponsorship, people want to come give you a couple hundred thousand dollars for a few races. We say no to a lot of that, for the simple reason that they want to dilute the efforts we've made and continue to make with Dale.

"The people we're aligned with, if you go down the list, you couldn't see any variation in the amount of money they pay, the rights they get and the way they utilize Dale. We keep all that fair for ourselves so we don't have to answer questions or eroding what we've worked really hard to build."

So what, exactly, is the Dale Earnhardt Jr. brand?

"Thirty-something male from Mooresville, N.C.? Just a guy down the street? I don't really know," Junior said. "That's hard for me to understand. It's hard for me to envision and describe. I'm not really that complex. When I describe my brand it's me describing my personality."

His sister echoed that answer.

"Authenticity. He is what you see," Miller said. "He doesn't try to be anybody that he's not. Everything we associate ourselves with we keep that in mind when we're thinking about partnering with someone or endorsing something. It's got to be something that Dale would do himself, that's authentic to him and doesn't seem out of character for him. He's down-to-Earth and relatable."

On The Chips

Earnhardt's latest venture is Dale Jr. Foods, a partnership with KLN Family Brands out of Minnesota. Recently, he unveiled four flavors of Dale Jr. signature potato chips -- Crispy Original, Carolina Barbecue, Zesty Jalapeno and Creole & Green Onion. He had direct input in the flavors that went to market. He tasted every type of chip from a sample of 15 flavors and chose his four favorites.

The chips, Junior said, speak well to his business vision.

"I wouldn't say I'm the most innovative guy out there, but I like to get involved in things that are interesting to me," Earnhardt said. "Sometimes I put fun as a priority over making money, which isn't the best way to go.

"Like the potato chips. That's fun for me. I'm interested in seeing what kind of success we can have with that. It might not double my bankroll or anything like that, but it's something fun that I think the fans can enjoy, and I can enjoy and have fun with. We had fun figuring out what flavors we liked, what the bag looks like. All that process is really fun for me."

He said feedback from fans center mostly on where Dale Jr. chips can be purchased, which, he said, is a lesson in itself.

"That part -- trying to get yourself into Walmart or food stores -- that's the end of the business I don't get involved in," Junior explained. "So I have to sit on the sideline and wait for that process to happen. That's moving as expected. It's not an easy task to convince people to give you some shelf space.

I don't really plan this stuff. I don't really have a vision in that way," Earnhardt said. "But the fortunate thing for me is, I'm in a situation where opportunities are coming through the door every day -- and there's a lot of them -- ones that don't get too far into the door.

"You wouldn't know it walking down the aisle in the grocery store when you're in shopping, but apparently that shelf space is a real tough deal to get. It's not like they just push stuff down the hall and slide you in there. It's kind of like buying a good seat at the Super Bowl or trying to get a ticket to the Daytona 500."

The potato chip opportunity came to him. Most opportunities do. So it goes as NASCAR's most popular driver. Miller estimates three to four new business opportunities come Junior's way each week.

"I don't really plan this stuff. I don't really have a vision in that way," Earnhardt said. "But the fortunate thing for me is, I'm in a situation where opportunities are coming through the door every day -- and there's a lot of them -- ones that don't get too far into the door."

Several, though, are intriguing and must be studied. Who's offering? Why? What is the motive? What is their reputation?

"George Foreman didn't wake up one morning thinking, 'I'm gonna sell a bunch of grills. That's my new project!'" Junior said. "Somebody came up to him and said, 'Hey, we have this idea and think it could be big and we want you on board.' And he jumped on board. And there's athletes everywhere, all over this country, trying to recreate that whole process."

The George Foreman Grill is the athlete endorsement standard, as far as Junior is concerned.

"It's mom-and-pop, hokey, but he's set for life," Junior said. "He's in good shape with that Foreman Grill. Every day, everything that comes through the door, you have to sift through that process to see what works and what doesn't work.


"You like to partner with things that fit your personality and that people connect to. If they don't connect to it, it doesn't feel natural and I can't do it. I won't do it."

The Drive

The chaotic schedule Monday through Thursday is a derivative of what happens on Sunday. It's still about racing. Asked how business development impacts the mental approach to the importance of racing, Earnhardt didn't flinch.

"For me, you push all the chips in on driving. You're all-in," he said. "You're gambling it all every weekend. You can't go in halfway. Steve [Letarte, crew chief] would see it. My crew would see it. They want my dedication and want my drive on Sunday to be the most important thing to me. And if it's not, it won't be the most important thing to them. So you push all the chips in every week. Every single week."

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