Mike Neff · Monday April 30, 2007
In one of the bigger surprises of the Talladega race weekend, reports surfaced that D.E.I. is once again in discussions with Robert Yates Racing about a possible merger. Trumping the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. contract negotiations as the topic of the day, this possible combination couldn’t bring together two more different types of ownership groups, especially with the longtime connections of each to different manufacturers. No doubt, merging both teams brings up some intriguing possibilities; but to be honest, there are some other things the powers that be at D.E.I. should be focusing on before looking to expand their horizons. In the long run, four car teams seem to be the wave of the future, but an organization has to be a good three car team first before they look to grow bigger. Right now, D.E.I. is far from fitting that description.
Of course, one area in which D.E.I. has succeeded is making money; the organization that was founded by the late, great Dale Earnhardt is one of the top organizations in NASCAR when it comes to revenue. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the most popular driver in the sport by a longshot, and his souvenir sales are the top moneymaker in NASCAR, a financial figure which pumps a large amount of income into the company. The licensing revenue from sales of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. memorabilia is also still among the Top 5 in the sport, even six years after his passing; that added financial boost provides the organization with a consistent influx of cash RYR currently does not receive, let alone several other top notch organizations contained within the sport. By taking on a cash-strapped Robert Yates Racing, D.E.I. would basically be adding a financial burden to their side…one they don’t really need when you look at the grand scheme of things.
In fact, that moneymaking machine established at D.E.I. should make them championship contenders every year, with each of its drivers in position to win multiple races. At this point in time, though, that’s just not happening. Junior is the only driver in the stable that is consistently threatening to win; Martin Truex, Jr. has been improving, but he’s not close to Junior’s level, nor is rookie Paul Menard. In fact, Menard’s equipment has let him down on multiple occasions; the No. 15 currently finds itself outside the Top 35 in owner points and has had to qualify on speed each week. Certainly, when you’ve got a car missing races, you have a company in need of focusing on making all teams competitive; stepping up their own performance should come first before they look towards any type of expansion to solve their problems.
There’s also the small matter of the ongoing contract negotiations with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., an issue which still needs to be the number one focus of the company. Without Junior, the company is looking at a catastrophic loss of capital that could cripple the organization for years to come. Those negotiations have been diagnosed for weeks, and it’s to the point no one knows for sure what is going on except for the parties involved; but whether Junior is truly prepared to lead the organization or not, keeping him in-house is simply the only option that the company can consider. He is too important from both a revenue and popularity standpoint for D.E.I. to let him walk out the door; any merger turns meaningless without his presence to lead the way.
Even with the possible benefits a merger with a team like Robert Yates could provide, the positives come packaged with a 12-pack full of question marks. For example, while D.E.I.'s engine program could use a man like Doug Yates to reduce things like parts failures, D.E.I.‘s engines are already some of the best in the sport to begin with when they last a full 500 miles. Who knows how much of Yates’ genius would come with him to D.E.I.; he’d be dealing with a completely different power plant in Chevrolet. The intricacies of milking one and two extra horsepower out of an engine are the stuff that rocket scientists sit around and talk about at lunch, and it’s taken years for Yates to develop that knowledge with Ford. Honestly, getting the D.E.I. teams to run better with the equipment currently on hand is far more important that reworking the engine program with a new head.
The driver pool at D.E.I. is also not ready to put a fourth car on the track at this time, and Yates doesn’t offer many promising options in that department. Ricky Rudd is merely filling a seat and doesn't seem like he is ready to be competitive again; by the time the merger would occur in ’08, he’ll likely re-retire. That leaves David Gilliland, who has shown some flashes of brilliance but is still ultimately a very raw and unproven talent that will tear up a lot of equipment before he really starts paying dividends. Honestly, Gilliland should have spent another year or two in the Busch Series before moving up in the first place. Since D.E.I. does not have a full-time Busch effort right now, they really don’t have a driver waiting in the wings from their side; Shane Huffman of Junior’s Busch Series team comes closest, but no wins in Busch combined with plenty of inexperience makes him clearly not ready for Cup competition. So, a lack of options internally means D.E.I. needs time to develop a driver with their own equipment, and as we all know, that can take several seasons to do.
Of course, there’s a remote possibility that D.E.I. might utilize a merger to switch to Ford after this season, as their contract with General Motors runs out after 2007. Although Junior and D.E.I. have been loyal to a fault to Chevrolet since the organization was founded, today’s sport is about business above all else, and any other manufacturer would love to have D.E.I. cars running their logo. If that were to happen, though, then you’d be looking at the organization learning how to field a brand new style of car; it’d be a much tougher transition than if Yates simply switched to Chevrolet. Granted, Yates would be able to provide proven power plants immediately in a Ford scenario, but learning a new body style (See: front nose) is a major undertaking for any organization, and the new ownership group may not be organized enough to make the transition.
All this info comes with a bottom line : D.E.I. is not competitive right now outside of the No. 8 team. Once all three D.E.I. cars are under the same roof and begin to run competitively for wins on a weekly basis, then and only then should the organization look to expand. Trying to go to four cars now, reorganizing the engine department in the process around men who've been building Fords for years, is simply stretching their resources far to thin to be successful. Teresa Earnhardt needs to get Junior under contract, get the teams running like they should, and then start looking at expanding…not before. Otherwise, should she give Junior the majority ownership he craves, she’ll be naming him captain of what would ultimately become a sinking ship.
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