Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Wednesday June 13, 2007
Editor’s Note: With all the excitement surrounding Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s recent announcement, Holding A Pretty Wheel moves to a special Thursday edition this week. It will be back in its usual Friday slot for next week and beyond.
Note #2 : For more on the official announcement, please click here for Frontstretch columnist Mike Neff’s exclusive report from JR. Motorsports in Mooresville.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. became Wednesday what he has always wanted to be: his own man. His announcement that he would drive for former archrival Hendrick Motorsports beginning in 2008 was both a surprise and not, because while the story was leaked on Tuesday, until that point it was largely believed that Earnhardt would sign with either Joe Gibbs Racing or Richard Childress Racing, the organization where his father had so much success. But in the end, this decision was not about money, nor equipment, nor even his father's legacy. It was about friendship. Earnhardt chose to drive for a man who has "known him since he was a puppy" – and he’ll be all the better for it.
A few weeks ago, such a deal seemed, at first glance, dead in the water. But reading between the lines, from Jimmie Johnson on his radio program, never once outright denying the speculation, to Kyle Busch's continued misbehavior and subsequent rumblings of Busch being unhappy with "not fitting in" with his more mature teammates, the possibility was never really dead. As recently as Dover two weeks ago, there were rumors that a deal with Joe Gibbs Racing was all but done, but such speculation turned out to mask other opportunities for Earnhardt being brokered behind the scenes. In the end, he chose to align himself with HMS after all, a team that is dominating NASCAR Nextel Cup racing this year to the tune of ten wins in 14 races.
As a NASCAR fan as well as a writer, I was thrilled with the news. This puts three of my favorite drivers on the same team. If only Kenny Wallace could get a gig in the No. 24, life in Amy's NASCAR Land would be just about perfect. But putting emotions aside (you don't really want to watch me do the Dance of Joy…it's kind of scary, really) the move was clearly a good one for everyone involved.
Earnhardt will finally have the chance to prove he's a championship caliber driver – or not. Either way, he now has the equipment to prove it. He also gets an owner who will guide him in the way that a father figure can, and teammates who will work with him driving similar cars. They’ll also offer advice all along the way; Jeff Gordon has helped Earnhardt since his father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500, and the two have always had tremendous respect for one another. As for Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson, both are close in age and possess a strong determination to win. Both are shy when the cameras are watching, but have a playful side and have been friends for a long time. Casey Mears also has that same playful side, meaning all four drivers should fit together well as teammates. But beyond the comradery, their drive to win, even at one another's expense, will only make Earnhardt race harder and smarter than he ever has before.
Hendrick Motorsports has long had the reputation of being the "evil empire" of NASCAR – after all, HMS has Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt's antithesis, and this polarized the fans. Plus, HMS has won, and won often in the last fifteen years, which hasn't exactly thrilled fans of other teams' drivers. Many of Earnhardt, Jr.'s fans have said that they will not follow him now because of their hatred, but others will tag along to his new team, perhaps discovering along the way that the team wins because they have an incredible personnel structure. The equipment is great, no doubt, but so it is at other organizations as well. HMS is dominant because of the people that Rick Hendrick surrounds himself with. Earnhardt is the newest person to be put in place, but Hendrick would not, no matter what his name is, bring on somebody who will upset the apple cart and cause any internal strife. He just cut loose a young, talented driver who couldn't seem to learn the Hendrick way – you can bet Hendrick wouldn't replace him with someone who will do the same. Junior brings knowledge, a monster fan base, and a burning desire to win races and championships with him to his new stable. Who wouldn't want a thoroughbred like that?
Many of Earnhardt's fans feel the move is the NASCAR equivalent of Luke Skywalker running off to party with Darth Vader while the galaxy crumbles around them. Conversely, many fans of Gordon, Johnson, and Mears fear that Earnhardt will demand the equipment and crews, maybe even the car numbers of HMS' senior drivers. They feel that Earnhardt wants to be the top dog at any cost. Well, not only would Hendrick not put up with any shenanigans, but that perception is largely untrue. Earnhardt's FANS want it, to be sure. So does a large part of the media. However, Earnhardt has never indicated, in any way, that he has this type of agenda. He just wants to be happy.
And, should things go as expected, Earnhardt should be happy indeed for the next five years. He'll be surrounded by friends who want only the best for him, but who will make him work for it every step of the way, setting the bar higher than ever before. He'll have only the best cars and crew. He'll have mutual respect – and nothing but – with his car owner. He'll be teammates – and equals – with some of the best wheelmen in NASCAR. And he'll do it on his terms. He’s no longer in his father’s constant shadow. NASCAR's favorite son has come of age.
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