Holding a Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday May 10, 2007
While many fans are still asking, "Wherefore, Junior?" the real question, and thus, the speculation is now "where for Junior?" When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced Thursday that he would leave Dale Earnhardt, Inc. at the conclusion of the 2007 season, speculation ran rampant as to where he might drive in 2008 and beyond. While fans have many differing opinions and ideas (I have heard everything from retirement to Petty Enterprises and beyond), there are some places that Junior would seem a natural fit.
Junior will likely choose a top-tier, competitive team for the next stage of his career, because that is the surest route to a coveted Nextel Cup championship. He has said that he will entertain any and all offers, but would like the stay with Chevrolet, the manufacturer for whom Junior has raced his entire career, and for whom his father drove for many, many years. Given this, there are several possibilities, some of which are stronger than others. We'll break down all the possibilities, no matter how outlandish, right here.
Hendrick Motorsports: When it comes to superior, winning equipment, Hendrick is the clear frontrunner, especially with the Car of Tomorrow, which may be a full-time reality as early as next year. He'd have full information sharing with Nextel Cup champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and the best cars money can buy. His talent could put him in contention immediately, along with his would-be teammates. From team owner Rick Hendrick's standpoint, it would be an ideal marriage – although many of Earnhardt's fans harbor ill feeling toward the organization, and they would have to temper their animosity, at least to a degree. Assuming that Earnhardt will likely bring sponsor Budweiser with him, there may be a leg up at HMS, who had a long and amicable relationship with the company before Junior came on the Cup scene. The one obvious drawback is that Hendrick Motorsports already fields four teams, the most allowed under NASCAR's current rules. So, if Junior comes, who goes? While the most obvious answer might be a struggling Casey Mears, the more likely castoff just might be Kyle Busch. Busch's attitude is sometimes a source of chagrin at HMS, and Earnhardt brings none of that to the table. Also, putting Earnhardt in the perennially hard-luck 25 car would do little to appease his fans, already suspicious at best of the organization. Finally, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson may have enough clout to keep their friend Mears on board, while Busch has no such advantage in his corner. The sport's most popular driver coupled with its best team could reap benefits for all involved for years to come.
Richard Childress Racing: Is it time for Junior to take over the ride that many consider his birthright? RCR has a fourth team slot available under the rules, and Childress has known Junior almost all of the driver's life. Plus, Earnhardt is friends with RCR driver Kevin Harvick. Whether or not Earnhardt chose to drive the legendary Number 3, RCR would seem like a homecoming to many of the fans who followed Junior's father before him. The equipment is good, proven by the fact Harvick was within shouting distance of the title in 2006, and Junior could be immediately successful there. Still, there are questions about this possibility. Current RCR top gun Harvick enjoys the spotlight, and having it swiped by Earnhardt might not go over the way he wants it to. RCR has just recently put together a true team effort in the last few seasons, and all could be lost should there be a power struggle. Also important to note are the sky-high expectations and pressure that would be foisted upon Junior should he move into the ride that was once his father's, even if he should drive another car number. Junior has said he'd like to close the book on his career in the Intimidator's old ride, but he may not be ready for that legacy just yet. Still, there's a strong possibility that RCR will open 2008 with a new marquee driver on board.
JR Motorsports: Bringing his own team into the Cup fold may be Junior's best option, if he can do it in a strong partnership with an established team, like Hendrick Motorsports. Sponsorship would not be hard to come by, but starting a brand new team, especially the multicar efforts required in today's competition, is a daunting task, and Junior should have a sit-down with Robby Gordon and old teammate Michael Waltrip before choosing that option. Dale Earnhardt never raced for a championship in a car he owned, and for good reason. Still, with all the money he could attract, Junior could acquire the resources to make a go of it. After all, D.E.I. started as a one car operation, too.
Joe Gibbs Racing: The team that fielded the 2006 Nextel Cup champion and 2007 Rookie of the Year also has room for a fourth Cup team. Earnhardt is friends with Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin and could benefit from the tight team concept that the Gibbs camp promotes. However, team president J. D. Gibbs reiterated Thursday that the team is not looking to rush into a fourth team, no matter who the driver might be. The final blow just might be the strict no alcohol sponsor rule that owner Joe Gibbs has imposed. If Budweiser wants to go with Junior, they will have to look elsewhere.
Ginn Racing: Since Mark Martin came to the fold, Ginn has proven a pleasant surprise this season. They have decent in-house chassis on Hendrick power and three veteran drivers in Martin, Sterling Marlin, and Joe Nemechek. This could be either an advantage or a disadvantage to Junior, an old-school driver in new-school equipment. With the sponsorship money that Earnhardt would bring, Ginn could afford to step it up another notch. But is another notch going to be the championship level Earnhardt is looking for? Not likely.
Not this time
Haas/CNC Racing: While this team has improved, they aren't at the level that even Ginn Racing has achieved. Jeff Green and Johnny Sauter are not exactly the kind of drivers that would be best suited to share information with Earnhardt, and the equipment, though also Hendrick powered, has never shown that it is capable of taking even a top driver to the top of the heap.
Furniture Row Racing: Although veteran and longtime family friend Kenny Wallace would make an excellent teammate for Earnhardt, the Colorado-based team doesn't have the resources to make Earnhardt competitive right away.
Unless another team defects to Chevrolet in the next few months, these would appear to be Junior's choices for 2008. So, where for Junior? Only time will tell.
Need to know what the next step is from here for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? Want all the inside info on how this story played out? Check out Athlon Sports’ Inside Racing Podcast with Frontstretch’s Tom Bowles and Matt Taliaferro to find out all the answers.
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