New Dale Jr. merchandise flying off shelves; not available at-track until '08

DOVER, Del. -- When Dale Earnhardt Jr. cracked the tab on that first AMP Energy drink Wednesday in Dallas, traditional retail stores such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart gobbled up 160,000 t-shirts.

Gold mine.

"Right off the gun," said Joe Mattes, JR Motorsports VP of licensing. "That's a lot for this sport."

And Mattes would know. He used to run Dale Earnhardt's merchandising empire.

In all, 200,000 Dale Jr. No. 88 t-shirts have been ordered for sale.

"It makes sense," Mattes said. "There's two sponsors -- it's a double-hit. It's not like a [typical] guy coming out with a new sponsor. It's Dale Jr. with two sponsors. His fans have to have one of each.

"They're shipped and ready to go. We hit it right. Everyone kept quiet about it. By end of weekend, all said and done, there's a couple hundred thousand t-shirts sold. A lot of them are pre-booked. NASCAR.com and dalejr.com are close to record days. There's so much pent-up demand, [fans] are hitting it hard."

And to think, distribution lines are currently limited.

Product is currently available in the Hendrick Motorsports shop as well as Jr. Nation, the apparel shop at JR Motorsports. They're also available online.

AMP and National Guard gear will not be available at track until 2008. That's out of respect for his longtime sponsor, Budweiser.

"Product won't be sold anywhere near track because he's driving the Bud car for the balance of the year," Mattes said. "The sales are non-traditional. [Fans] can go to Wal-Mart and online but not at-track until next year. He's still Bud on the track, and while he's driving the Bud car, he's supporting Bud."

Just three styles of shirt are currently available, Mattes said. An announcement t-shirt with both sponsors was produced, as well as individual t-shirts for the No. 88 AMP car and the No. 88 National Guard car.

Again, sales are booming at unprecedented volume.

"For a driver announcing his sponsors -- there's no comparison," Mattes said. "It's a true walk-off homer compared to any other thing. It's Rick Hendrick. It's Dale Jr. The issues over the number.

"Now it's 88. It's AMP, Mountain Dew, Guard. All that, combined, and add Junior Nation to the equation, there's no comparison. That makes a lot of [t-shirts] in a short amount of time."

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.