Crash.Net exclusive by DC Williams

For understandable reasons, Daytona International Speedway doesn't often give notice beyond about 24-48 hours for otherwise unexpected celebrity ... um, er, high-profile NASCAR Nextel Cup driver visits.

Whether it be for security reasons or being able to host a driver who shoehorned a last-minute track visit into an already busy schedule, local scribes often get DIS-originated e-mails that quickly turn personal schedules upside-down. Such was the case when the Speedway announced Dale Earnhardt Jr was coming to town, ostensibly to be DIS 'president' for a day.

As press representatives milled about, 'Mr President' arrived in the Bill France Room at Daytona USA. At first glance, everyone knew they weren't laying eyes upon some ordinary corporate executive. Flanked by suits wearing carefully-pressed slacks and starched, long-sleeved shirts, this president-for-a-day was wearing jeans, a
plaid, short-sleeved shirt and blue baseball cap. If he was to be president - if only for a day - it was going to be his way - even though Earnhardt looked as though he wanted to be almost anywhere else.

After being proclaimed president, he and 40 of his closest media friends - at least on that day - took a stroll to a nearby conference room where Earnhardt - faced with a choice of three artist-rendered colour-scheme variations - picked the 3 July Pepsi 400 pace car, announced a record $5.8million race purse and named its grand marshal.

As the crowd started moving ahead to Earnhardt's next 'job', a bold TV cameraman stepped forward. Standing before Earnhardt, he thrust a microphone at him and asked 'what would you like to be doing right now, Mr President?'.

"Heading down to sell some tickets for the Pepsi 400," Earnhardt responded.

The undeterred cameraman asked again 'what would YOU really like to be doing right now, Mr President?'.

"Me and a few of my buddies driving a pace car around this big ol' track," said Earnhardt.

Persisting, the cameraman asked again.

"Mr President, what would YOU REALLY LIKE to be doing right now?"

At first, peering from beneath the rim of his baseball cap, Earnhardt raised his head just a bit, looked directly at the cameraman, threw on a wry smile and twice raised his eyebrows.

Off to sell tickets.

Taking a seat at a counter where the public can buy DIS event tickets, the only thing separating Earnhardt from the soon-to-be fan throng was a bank-like counter and glass window. A young woman now standing before Earnhardt could hardly believe her eyes.

"No, we didn't announce to anyone in the lobby that he'd be here," Speedway senior media director Kenny Kane said, "We would've had a mob scene."

One could almost imagine the young woman would soon seek increased spending limits from her credit card company - though she and her husband settled for two tickets. They would, at least, also bear Earnhardt's trademark signature.

As DIS' entire ticket-selling operation ground to a halt - except for Earnhardt's efforts - the lobby began swelling to hundreds of visitors and DIS officials soon decided it was time to move on to the paddock's media centre.

With Kane taking the wheel, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated's JR Rhodes and a reporter in the rear seat, Earnhardt climbed in the truck's right front passenger seat. All were quiet, providing Earnhardt a moment of reflection as he passed beneath the spot where his father died three years ago.

On a track at which he's burnt a lot of stockcar rubber, earlier in 2004 Earnhardt had partnered with Nextel Cup competitor Tony Stewart and sportscar ace Andy Wallace for a strong run at the Rolex 24 at Daytona chequered flag, only to have a suspension failure halt their Pontiac-Crawford 19 minutes short of winning.

Earnhardt will again drive a sportscar during a 18 July Nextel Cup off-weekend, when he'll co-drive a Chevrolet Corvette C5-R with veteran road-racer Boris Said in an American Le Mans Series event at Infineon Raceway.

"You've done the Infineon track in a stockcar, how's it feel in a Corvette?" asked the reporter.

"Haven't done it yet," Earnhardt answered, "but I'm looking forward to it."

"How about the Rolex 24 at Daytona? Do you want to do that again?" the reporter asked.

"I want to, but I haven't got any plans yet," Earnhardt answered, "It kinda gets in your blood, you know. It's gotten in mine, that's for sure."

Unfortunately, the private ride was far too short to find out exactly how far sportscar racing had worked its way into his blood, but those questions would be addressed in an extended question-and-answer session now at hand with the assembled media.

Then Earnhardt would get into an unexpected driving venue discussion that few reporters evidently had failed to seriously consider. Indy.

"Having that opportunity, I'd be a fool not to," Earnhardt said, "There are drivers coming into NASCAR that would love to drive at the Indy 500, but they'll never get the chance because nobody would think to put them in a car. But, if I went up to a prominent car owner, they might really consider it."

Soon mentioned were names like Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt - drivers whose ability transcended any one racing series and who, while perhaps remembered for a Formula One championship or four Indy 500 crowns, are also remembered for Daytona and Le Mans victories.

"It would be cool to be among that group," Earnhardt said, "In the 24-hour race at Daytona here, we're going to come back because we came so close. It draws you back. Maybe that's what happened to all those guys like AJ and them."

"There are a couple of goals I set for myself, before I retire, that I drive [at] Le Mans and I drive in the Indy 500. But that's before I retire and quit driving for good. There's plenty of time for that.

"I'm always a stock car driver. I just want to do each one of those races once - nothing else. Running in the [Daytona] 24-hour race has really turned me on to doing those other things - just so you can say you did."

However, with Jimmie Johnson sitting only five points behind him after Sunday's World 600, Earnhardt is quick to redirect the conversation and his focus to a more pressing issue - keeping his #1 NASCAR Nextel Cup driver points standing.

"I want the championship this year and we're concentrating on that. I want to put that in my book." he stated.

At 29 years of age, Earnhardt has plenty of time to write his driving record book. After all, Mario Andretti wrote the F1 driver's title part of his life when he was 38.