Earnhardt's next big step is to step up and win races again

DALLAS -- It's just a number. It's just a paint scheme. Or two.

But it is Dale Earnhardt Jr., so it's really not just anything. When NASCAR's most popular driver made it official with his new sponsors and new logo and new number at the Dallas Convention Center, the Chase, however briefly, took a backseat to Junior Nation.

When Earnhardt Jr. said he will be driving the 88, there was a noticeable increase in camera clicks. Somehow Junior just saying he was switching to the new number was a thing that had to be preserved on film.

And how many people in any sport change numbers and say that they hope it "brings some closure" to their fans?

Kobe Bryant and Roger Clemens can change numbers and it's news for about a day.

Teresa Earnhardt declines to sell the lease on the rights to the No. 8 to Hendrick Motorsports so her stepson can continue to drive it, and she becomes the most heinous owner in any sport.

Now Junior, winless in his last 53 Cup starts, has a fresh start with history on his side.

Dale Jarrett won a championship driving the 88. Darrell Waltrip won championships with Mountain Dew as his sponsor. Many others have had success with the number, as 65 Cup wins attest.

"Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett -- it has a history of great drivers," Earnhardt Jr. said of the 88. "Numbers have personalities. Numbers do talk. Numbers can reach out and grab you. Some of the others we were looking at didn't do that."

He gave credit to his sister, Kelly Earnhardt Elledge, for brokering the deal that brought the number from Robert Yates Racing to Hendrick.

"She earned her paycheck that day," he said.

Next question: When does Dale Jr. earn his?

He called himself the best driver in NASCAR at Wednesday's press conference. Team owner Rick Hendrick said Earnhardt isn't coming over to learn anything from champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, that he already is a tremendous driver.

That was true in 2004 when he won six races, finished fifth in the Chase and was poised to be NASCAR's next great driver.

There's no number of wins I want to reach. It's just that when you retire you want people to say you were great. Until I drive [Hendrick] cars and go testing, I won't really understand how it's going to be to work for him.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It hasn't happened.

He has won twice in 99 races, which means he has won one more race than Juan Pablo Montoya over three years despite a two-year head start.

Dale Jr. will be in the best equipment money can buy. He will share notes with the two drivers tied for the Chase lead who own five titles between them.

In other words: No excuses.

And Junior isn't interested in making any.

"There's no number of wins I want to reach," he said Wednesday. "It's just that when you retire you want people to say you were great. Until I drive [Hendrick] cars and go testing, I won't really understand how it's going to be to work for him.

"Seeing these cars here today, it's a chance to just start to see how great this is going to be. I want to finish this year strong and our team wants to make a statement. But I can't wait until 2008 to show these people how dedicated a race driver I am and how much I want to prove myself."

What he has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt is he can move products off the shelves faster than any of his fellow drivers. That will be even easier for him now having removed the restrictions that come with being sponsored by a beer manufacturer.

The winning part should eventually come, too.

And that's the kind of closure that Earnhardt's fans are really seeking.

Tim Cowlishaw is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News and a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage.