It’s right early on Saturday morning, and Chris Daughtry is struggling to catch up on his caffeine intake.

“What’s up, guys?” American Idol’s fourth-place finisher greets a crowd of reporters in a banquet room at 8 a.m. in downtown Greensboro, where an enormous ice sculpture of a guitar bears his name. “Hope you don’t mind me drinking my coffee; I ain’t quite woke up yet.”

Since being bounced from the enormously popular show on May 10, Daughtry has gotten accustomed to squeezing in his creature comforts on the run. He’s also found that not winning the Fox TV singing competition wasn’t necessarily the worst thing.

“As disappointed as I was, it was the best thing to have happen,” Daughtry says. “The last couple of weeks, I’ve been a lot happier that I’m off the show.”

He’s not just being polite. The morning after viewers sent him home–in a surprise turn, as he’d been the odds-on favorite to win–the rock band Fuel offered him the job of lead singer.

He’d sung one of the band’s songs on the show and sent record sales soaring, just one more indicator of the marketing powerhouse Idol has become, with 200 million viewers around the globe and high-profile acts like Prince clamoring for cameos.

Daughtry turned down the Fuel gig because he wants to do his own thing, and he’s well on his way. He confided to the hometown crowd he’d been up to New York City late last week for meetings about his future–plans he’ll have a lot more choice about as a fourth-place finisher than if he’d won or been runner-up, since the Idol star-making machine controls the careers of the top two.

“Big things are on the way that I can’t really discuss right now,” he said.

In the meantime, he starred in a marathon “Chris Daughtry Day” in Greensboro and McLeansville on June 4: leading an elementary school parade; raising money for a favorite charity; recording radio shows; greeting local dignitaries. Oh, and some singing, both solo and with his longtime band, Absent Element.

“I’m kinda scared,” he joked upon hearing that 15,000 fans had lined up to see him sing at the Grimsley High School stadium, including hundreds who’d slept there to get good seats. “I’m used to being the one who camps out to see a show.”

In the few quiet days he’s had at home with wife Deanna and the couple’s 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, Daughtry says it’s been hard to go about the business of everyday life. The Fox show that’s become such a runaway ratings and advertising success that even TV snobs are forced to acknowledge its place in modern pop culture has made Daughtry a household name and face, at least in his home state.

“I’ve tried everything but a wig,” Daughtry says with a sheepish grin, rubbing his trademark shaved head and sculpted goatee and recounting a family shopping excursion to a local Gap that ended with a mob scene. “I’ve shaved my whole face, I can wear stupid hats I’d never wear before and still get recognized.”

Still, he’s glad to be back in Dixie, and says he plans to maintain his home here.

“L.A. ain’t home,” he says, recalling the Idol finalists’ trip to Elvis’ homeland for a recording session in mid-season. “First taste I got back in the South was when I came to Graceland, and that was a relief, especially the food. L.A.’s too high speed–it’s fun for about a minute.”

Early next month, he’s back on the road for the sold-out American Idol summer tour.

A hard-edged rocker who drew both praise and criticism for not compromising on his song choices to gain votes, Daughtry will have his own set of three or four songs during the group tour, which he seems pleased about. He’ll sing plenty of songs with the other members of the top 10, too, which he describes with an almost straight face.

“I’m sure we’ll do some interesting group numbers,” he says, lip twitching ever so slightly. Asked whether the show’s mandatory smorgasbord of musical styles–which ranged from Elton John and Stevie Wonder to Burt Bacharach and Barry Manilow–has him revisiting his own portfolio, he laughs. “I don’t think I’ll be doing any standards, let’s put it that way.”

His tour mates will include Rockingham’s Bucky Covington and Albemarle’s Kellie Pickler, who also finished in the top 12. The trio continued an annual tradition of strong North Carolina representation among the finalists: Raleigh’s Clay Aiken finished second three years ago; High Point’s Fantasia Barrino won the next year.

Before watching Southern rocker Bo Bice of Alabama come in second last year, Daughtry says, he wouldn’t have even thought about auditioning for Idol. “I thought it was cheesy,” he said.

There’s a lot less time to drink coffee over leisurely mornings these days, but Daughtry’s not complaining.

“This is what I’ve wanted to do my whole life,” says the 26-year-old singer, who’s played the club circuit while holding down a day job at an auto service shop. “I’ve been doing this since I was 16, and you get in a band, and you keep thinking, this is gonna be it. … But it’s hard to convince yourself that you’re bettering the family by going out every weekend and playing for 20 or 30 people. But there’s always a way to make things happen.”