DAYTONA BEACH - Although he hasn't been anywhere near his race car, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't slowed down in the past couple weeks.
Like a lot of other NASCAR drivers, he's been making appearances to reconnect with his fans and raise money for charities. This month Earnhardt will shake a lot of hands, answer questions, sign autographs and pose for pictures. Once the racing season starts in February, he won't have that kind of time - and fans won't have the same kind of access.
Earnhardt was one of 25 drivers appearing at the Sprint Speed and Sound in Nashville last weekend, and he will be one of 27 drivers appearing Friday and Saturday at the NASCAR Preseason Thunder Fan Fest at the Daytona International Speedway.
Personal appearances have always been a big part of a driver's job. For a sponsor spending nearly $20 million a year, it's as important as winning races. For fans, it's a rare opportunity to get up close and personal.
Some fans stood in line for 20 hours to get Tony Stewart's autograph last week at Nashville. Stewart was overwhelmed, especially since the South was in the grip of a record-setting cold snap.
"That's pretty cool, especially when you've been on vacation (in Australia) for two-and-a-half weeks and you have been out of the country, haven't been around a lot of NASCAR fans, so it's nice to come home and be reminded of how dedicated the fans that we have are," Stewart said. "To be able to take a day like this, take our time and spend it with the fans is something that's pretty cool for all of us."
NASCAR shared the stage with 13 of country music's top acts, including Josh Turner, Diamond Rio and Hank Williams Jr.
Proceeds from Speed and Sound benefited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Victory Junction Gang Camp.
Kyle Petty said the money raised at Nashville will help pay for as many as 400 critically ill children to attend his camp next summer.
"I think for us it's become one of our mainstays, it's become one of our main fundraisers," Petty said. "To have events like this, have guys come out like this and be a part of it, it's a lot bigger thing for us than I think they even realize it is."
Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Ron Hornaday Jr., Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Travis Kvapil, Todd Bodine, Kelly Bires, Michael Annett, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and A.J. Allmendinger will appear at Daytona on Friday, starting at 6 p.m.
David Reutimann, Trevor Bayne, Scott Speed, Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Colin Braun, Martin Truex Jr., Morgan Shepherd, Kevin Harvick and David Ragan will be at the track on Saturday, starting at noon.
On the way to Daytona, Gordon made a stop at Loris, S.C., to help build a new home for "Extreme Makeover." When he got to the construction site at 5 a.m. on Monday, his first words were, "Hand me a hammer," according to the Myrtle Beach Times.
He worked on the house for nearly 12 hours, doing everything except roofing work. Gordon stayed off the roof to make sure he didn't hurt his sore back.
Logano made a stop over the weekend in Lake Placid, N.Y., to win the Lucas Oil Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge, a non-profit program started by the former NASCAR driver to fund technology and construction of the American-made Bo-Dyn bobsleds for the U.S. Olympic team.
Every driver at Daytona will participate in a 45-minute fan forum and autograph session at the speedway's infield. The speedway also will use the opportunity to sell NASCAR Day pens that helps the NASCAR Foundation, as well as conducting a blood drive on the way into the infield.
Denny Hamlin won't be at Daytona, but he was one of the featured drivers at Nashville. He said drivers are eager, especially in the offseason, to interact with their fans and help a variety of causes.
"Obviously we do a lot to help put on a show for them, but they also so a lot to help give back to our charities," he said. "Not only that, but the drivers give back to each other's charities. We're in a unique position where we can do a lot of good for a lot of people. It's just up to us to take advantage of that. It's an obligation, but it's an obligation you have with yourself to give back."
After this weekend's Fan Fest, drivers have only three weeks before the season starts. Once the cars are on the track, drivers can't be as charitable with their time.