The Frontstretch: White Flag: Junior's Last Lap at DEI by Amy Henderson -- Thursday November 15, 2007

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White Flag: Junior's Last Lap at DEI

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday November 15, 2007


It seems like a lifetime ago, and in a way, it was.

It's hard to believe that it's been almost a decade since Dale Earnhardt, Jr. came onto the scene as a then Winston Cup rookie with a heck of a name to live up to. He was a likeable young kid who liked to party and have a good time and race on Sunday. He didn't seem to be in any hurry to grow up, and that was okay. He was determined to be his own person, free of the shadow of his father, a seven-time Cup champion and a racing legend.

But Dale Earnhardt cast a long shadow, and his death in February 2001 forced Junior to grow up overnight. Driving for the organization his father built for him, Earnhardt, Jr. proved his prowess on the racetrack with seventeen wins to date. After his father's death, Junior wanted to uphold the reputation of Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated on the track and was successful, as were teammates Steve Park and Michael Waltrip. Everything was turning up roses, and there was no reason to believe that the Earnhardt name on the sign outside wouldn't be carried on inside the shop as well for years to come, with Junior racing the red No. 8 for as long as he wanted to race at NASCAR's top level.

But that wasn't to be. Without the direction of the man who started it all, DEI began a slow slide that was probably not visible at first. Park was gravely injured in a Busch Series crash in the fall of 2001 and would never be the same fiercely talented young competitor he once was. Waltrip won the Daytona 500 again, but never found much success off the restrictor plate tracks. Junior was winning, but his team lacked the consistency to ever really be the major title contender that had previously been a foregone conclusion. Junior had his own ideas about how to take DEI to the level his father had envisioned, but his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, had a different direction in mind. The No. 1 car sat driverless for a time after Park's failed comeback, until Martin Truex Jr., a driver that Richie Gilmore handpicked and Junior nurtured in his Busch career, came on board. Truex is making a name for himself and his team, but DEI is no longer the on-track powerhouse it once was and was meant to be – and Junior grew frustrated.

When Teresa questioned his commitment to racing in the last offseason, it must have stung. Junior never wanted to be anything less than a champion, but that was becoming more and more of a pipe dream as DEI slipped further behind its competitors each year. And it's likely what got the wheels in motion, too. At some point, it must have become clear to Junior that the grass really was greener in other pastures, and he did what once was unthinkable: he announced in May, just before Mothers' Day, that he would leave the company that bears his name at the end of 2007.

It was time, it really was. At 32, Junior was no longer the young gun in town. It was apparent to even the most casual observer that things were not clicking anymore at DEI. So Junior, who has always been driven by his desire to carry on his family's championship legacy, went to Hendrick Motorsports, a powerhouse team that captured half of the available wins in the Nextel Cup Series this year – certain to win their second Cup in as many years, and seventh since 1995. His teammates will be Jeff Gordon, a one-time rival and always a friend of his father's; Jimmie Johnson, a young man not really much unlike Junior in many respects; and Casey Mears, the product of a racing bloodline every bit as rich as Junior's. While many fans see rival Gordon's organization as an evil empire, Junior saw it – correctly – as the best place for him to find the title he yearns for.

Meanwhile, Junior gave 2007 everything he had, wanting to win one more for old times' sake, one more for the man who gave him his name and his legacy. Every week, he came up short, and by Fall, it was easy to see the strain on Earnhardt. His (usually during-race) post-race comments were quietly emotional, his voice thick with disappointment. In one way, it's time to move on. In another, he'll never really be ready at all.

And so it comes to this: the white flag lap for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. It will be very different next year not seeing that red No. 8 on track, the number itself looking awfully like a three that had simply come full circle. But that eight was upright, not the imagined infinity symbol at all, and the magic had grown tired. While DEI will always be the place where Junior grew up, it was apparent that it was no longer the place for him that it had once been. So Junior will turn that last lap and then walk away.

But he walks away as the person he always wanted to be: his own man, but a man who wears the family legacy well. His father gave him roots at DEI. It turns out he also gave him wings.

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11/16/2007 06:23 AM

A very simple but eloquent column about the man in red we have loved since he was a toddler. It is so sad, because it didn’t have to turn out this way. He lost more than his father that day in 2001. He lost a big chunk of his blooming career. So sad, so very sad. May Rick nurture him like his father would have and his future be what his past should have been. Smooth sailing, Dale Jr.

11/16/2007 07:37 AM

A great srticle from Amy Hendersen and a true response from Ginger.
We are looking forward to many winning seasons and championships as you go.

11/16/2007 08:44 AM

Bill Elliott in the Coors #9, Harry Gant in the Skoal #33, Petty in the STP #43, Earnhardt in the Goodwrench #3.

Alas, all things will come to pass. I will cherish the memories.

Kevin in SoCal
11/16/2007 11:03 AM

Dale Jr will win just as many races next year as he did this year. Kyle Busch and Casey Mears arent tearing up the tracks with wins, either. Face it, he peaked too early with two Busch Championships (how many Busch wins?) and 17 Cup wins. Now he has not much left after dealing with all the media and fan scrutiny that has worn him out.

Mr. T
11/16/2007 02:15 PM

Kevin, Jr. peaked too early?

Sr. won most of his races in his 30s and 40s. He was still very competetive at 50. There are ebbs and flows to every great racecar driver’s career. Look up all their stats – you’ll be suprised how many seasons “the greats” had 1 or less wins.

Many of the articles/interviews I’ve seen have said Jr. looks/acts so happy as he talks about HMS. Now, he can drive and show up for less sponsor stuff while getting paid market value. At DEI he had to go to all sponsor events and his salary was below the going rate. He will be refreshed and he will win. Bank on it.

11/16/2007 04:18 PM

You’re absolutely right Mr T, after 8 seasons in Winston Cup, Dale Sr had won 20 races compared to 17 for Jr. Competition for victories was no where near the level it is now. Racers are fighting just to make the show much less win the race…..Go Junior!!!!!!!!!

Kevin in SoCal
11/16/2007 06:32 PM

I just dont think its right that he got 90% of his fans thru his father’s accomplishments instead of his own. Dale Sr was never the most popular driver until he was killed by Sterling Marlin. Then Jr has been voted the most popular for the last 5 years. There are several other drivers with similar win totals, including championships, that dont have 10% the fans Jr does. Drivers like Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliot, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, even Tony Stewart. Put those fans together and you still dont have Jr’s fan base. It makes no sense that its so lopsided. Plus the fans that wanted to see Brian Vickers kicked out just for running into Jr at Talledega, and the ones who throw beer cans at Jeff Gordon. Those fans make me sick.

11/17/2007 12:16 PM

Kevin in SoCal, Popularity has more to do with attitude and likeability than wins and championships. So just go puke your guts out and get over it

11/17/2007 03:43 PM

I was glad to see Jr. decide to go his own way. It will be good for him. Even if he doesn’t win a championship. But I’m sure he will.

There are many young men who grow up in the shadow of their father. And a lot of times it’s best to break away to become their own man. Men like this can relate to Jr.‘s decision.

But I have to add: I thought it a little unkind to not let the number 8 go with him. The phrase, “it’s just a number” goes both ways. It would have said a lot if Teresa had let the number stay with Jr. But that didn’t happen. And THAT said a lot.

Jr. has handled this like a true grown man. And THAT has made me a fan of his where I really wasn’t before. Go get ‘em tiger.

11/19/2007 05:31 PM

Mr. T, I must have missed it, when did Jr. peak? I haven’t seen anything resembling peaking. He’s won some races, no where did he show he could challenge for championships at this level. Jr. is still over rated.

Kevin in SoCal
11/20/2007 01:08 PM

Oh yeah, and the number thing. How arrogant of him to think he could take his number with him. When any other driver changes teams they dont get to take their number with them. They get whatever number is available at their new team. Hendrick has had the #25 much longer than Jr has had the #8, yet Jr demanded a number change. That’s not class, that arrogance.

11/21/2007 11:21 AM

Kevin in SoCal

Don’t blame Sterling Marlin for that accident. It was Dale’s fault all the way. It is tragic that he died, but if he wouldn’t have been blocking, it wouldn’t have happened. Review the tapes.

11/21/2007 08:47 PM

Good column, Amy.

I do agree that Junior badly wants to be a contender. But I believe that, just as much, he wants a car owner who will care about him, who will come to Victory Lane and pat him on the back. He didn’t have that at TEI.


Contact Amy Henderson

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