Thompson in Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday June 5, 2007
This past weekend at Dover, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. set the record straight on previous allegations both stated and implied that his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt was not providing needed resources to the race teams at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Thank goodness for that; Junior's clarification of the problems between him and his present employer came just in the nick of time to keep a reputation for honesty intact. As it was apparent to all that witnessed this weekend’s Nextel Cup performance by the D.E.I. entries, the equipment Teresa Earnhardt was providing to her organization was indeed nothing less than top-notch. Not only did Junior qualify second for the race, but his stablemate, Martin Truex, Jr., won the Autism Speaks 400 in a runaway. Winning by over 7 seconds, Truex put on a dominating performance, leading 216 of 400 laps with a race car that was clearly superior to the rest of the field. It was a victory celebration indicative of a strong future for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., a future Earnhardt realizes now would not have been as bad as originally perceived.
During the recent highly publicized contract negotiations for controlling interest of Dale Earnhardt, Inc., insinuations were made that the team was not sufficiently equipped to be competitive. Earnhardt, Jr. and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, serving as Junior's Business Manager / Spokesperson, reasoned that if Junior were victorious in being given reign over D.E.I.'s racing division, needed changes in providing missing resources would occur that were likely to create more wins and championship possibilities for her brother down the line.
Back then, Earnhardt Elledge claimed the reason for their desire to gain majority control was very much competition-related. "There hasn't been someone solid in the business putting the resources back into the race team,” she explained as the reasoning behind making this move. The daughter of D.E.I. founder Dale Earnhardt concluded that the attempted takeover was essential because, "We want Dale to drive 10 or 12 more years. We've got to get on the racetrack and win and get competitive and win championships. We have to have a situation that provides that for him."
However, as Junior continues to make his rounds of potential new employers’ shops, he has apparently come to the realization that perhaps D.E.I. and Teresa, the much-maligned owner and manager of the company, may have indeed been more attentive to business than both he and his sister had given her credit for. Never much exposed to other "big league" race shops outside of his stepmother’s, the immensely popular driver observed that he hasn’t noticed any “golden eggs” anywhere else.
“I was surprised at how on par in some places D.E.I. really is,” Earnhardt, Jr. said. “I never really felt like me and crew chief Tony (Eury), Jr. had any trouble being competitive at D.E.I. The reasons why I left were truly personal and not competition related." Of course, this reasoning is a departure from earlier statements from the driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet, in which he had explained that his split from Eury during the 2005 season was in part due to Junior wrongly holding his crew chief responsible for performance issues that were actually a result of Eury not having the proper shop resources.
Well, at least now we start to get to the truth behind the most talked about owner and driver split in stock car history. Junior’s desire to leave was personal, and not really related to any lack of effort or desire on Teresa Earnhardt's behalf to provide competitive equipment. While his admissions come after the fact, credit needs to be given to Junior for coming clean on this issue, as he and sister Kelley had painted quite a different picture of their stepmother's management of the race team in recent months.
The allegations behind those ill-fated comments were clear, and I believe intentional in nature. Teresa was being accused of not putting resources (i.e. – sponsorship money) back into the organization and that she had not been solidly behind the race business. Of course, that leads to the obvious conclusion that the teams were not competitive. These charges were certain to cast their stepmother in a negative manner before the public, giving Junior’s negotiating team the upper hand as they pursued their mission to wrestle control of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. right out of her hands. It was an impossible mission, of course, to snag a company that their deceased father left 100% of to Teresa upon his tragic and untimely death.
Though ultimately the stepchildren were unsuccessful in gaining control, the unwarranted condemnation of their stepmother lingered and became a rally cry for many that became convinced that Junior was not being given adequate equipment to race as competitively as his talents are deserving of.
Of course, any such accusations are nothing short of ridiculous. At best, it is accurate that efforts on the part of D.E.I.'s management have not resulted in any championships for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. That’s a goal that Junior and many within his “Red Army” of supporters desperately want to see him achieve, and to that end, the organization has not been successful. Yes, if winning championships becomes the litmus test as to whether an owner is operating their teams properly, Teresa Earnhardt is guilty as charged. But it is important to point out that only three NASCAR Cup owners have been successful in attaining that goal in eleven of the last twelve years. With the exception of Dale Jarrett's 1999 championship season, achieved while driving for owner Robert Yates, all of NASCAR’s previous twelve titles have gone to owners named Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, and Joe Gibbs. Meanwhile, giants of the sport as Richard Childress, Chip Ganassi, and Roger Penske would all need to pull up a chair next to Teresa Earnhardt at the “bad team owners” table.
Clearly, a championship should not be a barometer from which the level of success a team can achieve should be judged. D.E.I. has provided Junior with good equipment, and, despite popular opinion to the contrary, race cars and team personnel that have been capable of winning races and championships. Junior has been eligible for two of the first three Nextel Cup Chases for the Championship, and has career numbers that are befitting those of a champion. It is worth noting that Earnhardt, Jr's. career wins eclipse by two the total of fifteen recorded by 2003 Winston Cup Champion Matt Kenseth. Conversely, Kenseth has tallied merely two more Top 5 finishes than Junior, with seventy-two in 268 career Cup starts for both drivers. As comparable as the two drivers’ on-track performances have been, there has never been a hint of criticism that Roush-Fenway Racing is not providing to Kenseth's No. 17 Ford race team the needed resources to compete.
It was further apparent, even before Monday's rain-delayed race, that D.E.I.'s Car of Tomorrow program is top-notch. While racking up solid runs on the race track, their progress had simply been overshadowed by the phenomenal success that the Hendrick Motorsports entries have experienced during the first four races in which the new generation of race car had competed. Development of the CoT by all race teams has been a huge undertaking, involving a three-year commitment to manpower, equipment, engineering expertise, and money. When Martin Truex, Jr. wheeled the D.E.I.-owned No. 1 Chevrolet into Victory Lane, he affirmed, even without confirmation on Junior’s part, that Teresa Earnhardt has succeeded at every item on that checklist, providing the necessary resources to the teams to not only be competitiveâ€¦but win!
In the meantime, Junior's weekend comments should be accepted as they were offered. I am convinced that the strife between him and his stepmother that resulted in him attempting to take control of her company, as well as arriving at the decision to leave D.E.I. at season’s end, was a "truly personal" long-term disagreement. No decision was made because he "had any trouble being competitive at D.E.I." – no matter how much he’d have made you believe that just a few short months ago.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is not known as one to shift blame or fail to accept responsibility for his actions. He is rightfully widely regarded and respected as a "stand-up guy" both on and off the track. Well, this weekend he once again "stood up" and told the truth.
You can't ask for any more.
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