With Dale Earnhardt, Jr. leaving Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, the whirlwind of controversy that has arisen is second to none. Although his departure has not caused the Earth to veer off its axis and send us all hurtling towards the sun (which may happen when he does announce where he will be going), it has created an open seat for one of the more promising Chevrolet teams in NASCAR. While many may argue that DEI is on its way to becoming little more than a museum full of No. 3 memorabilia, it is still one of the most successful and capable teams on the circuit in need of a driver for its flagship car. As to who may be in line to replace Junior in the No. 8 car, well, it's time to speculate a little…let’s examine the racing landscape and see who may be available for the No. 8 in â€˜08.
Greg Biffle: The last time Biffle was up for a contract negotiation, he made it perfectly clear that he was willing to look elsewhere. With Ameriquest, the most sued company on the planet, asking to be released from their sponsorship of the Roush-Fenway No. 16, Biffle may be poised to make a move as well. His contract is up for renewal again, and Roush-Fenway President Geoff Smith has recently made a habit of losing the best talent in racing, turning the other cheek as several veterans who had once served as pillars of the organization continue to walk right out the door. After a 2006 season that failed to produce the results that 2005 indicated would follow, Biffle encouraged the departure of Doug Richert despite the fact they won the final race at Homestead for the 3rd consecutive year. The Roush CoT program isn't exactly going gangbusters, and Biffle has yet to be in contention to win this year. He may have won Roush its first two NASCAR titles in Craftsman Truck and Busch, but it’s never seemed The Biff got much love from Livonia since signing with the team way back in 1998.
Kyle Busch: An interesting proposition. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s main goal is to win races and championships, and there's one team that's really, really good at that: Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson obviously aren't going anywhere, and they're BFFs with Casey Mears, giving him unprecedented immunity in the face of poor performance. That means should Junior come calling, it’s actually Busch who might be the odd man out at Hendrick. Perhaps Chevrolet will establish a “trade,” so to speak, exchanging Busch for Budweiser between D.E.I. and Hendrick. Hendrick actually had ties with Bud from 1994 to 1998, and with Busch no longer sponsoring the Grand National Series, why not sponsor your namesake? Heck, Miller sponsors his brother, so why not?! Just think of the possibility…Kyle Busch driving the Busch Beer Chevrolet for D.E.I. There is a connection here, I'm sure of it…everyone just needs to connect the dots.
Scott Riggs: Evernham as a whole has been running awful this year, but this is the guy who's missing races, which puts him in jeopardy for eventually missing out on a ride. Riggs usually qualifies well and is fast, but he’s wrecked all by himself a little too often for my taste. To his credit, he settled down big time and showed flashes of brilliance in 2006, snapshots of talent that have quickly gone missing during a disappointing ’07. I always kind of got the impression that the No. 10 team is lost in the shuffle between the flagship No. 9 effort and the second factory-sponsored No. 19 team, a program which always seems as if it's teetering on the verge of greatness. With Daimler recently divesting itself of Chrysler, Mopar backing might be left wanting for some teams, so Riggs may be on the outside looking in by the end of the year.
Boris Said: Said has instructed half of the current Nextel Cup field how to properly execute heel-and-toe downshifting and how to negotiate the left AND right turns at both Infineon and Watkins Glen. While he's trying desperately to land a full-time gig in a Cup car, he has been given a few opportunities with Roush's No. 60 satellite operation headed up by friend Brian Simo and Frankie Stoddard. That type of solid equipment was all Said needed to strut his stuff on an oval; he put his car on the pole at the Pepsi 400 in 2006, then raced his way into the 500 this year. He's hungry for a ride and to prove himself, two things D.E.I. desperately needs as they look to fill their giant void. If there is a down side, this man is older than most rookie drivers at 44 years of age; but who else has a legion of fans showing up with gigantic afro-wigs? Imagine seeing the sea of red in the grandstands replaced with those.
Ward Burton: It could happen. D.E.I. right now has Martin Truex, Jr. and Paul Menard on board; those aren’t exactly drivers that go hand in hand with boatloads of Cup experience. It clearly wouldn’t hurt to get some stable, old school, veteran leadership in the organization right now, and Burton could certainly provide it. While he is struggling getting the No. 4 Morgan-McClure entry to even qualify for the show most weeks, he would have a free pass for the first few races (under the current rules) with the No. 8's owner points, and a fast car to boot. Ward won a handful of races with Bill Davis Racing, including the Daytona 500 and Southern 500. After getting released from a bad deal at Haas back in 2004, Burton took a few years off to catch his breath and kick it in the woods for awhile, and know he's tanned, rested, and ready to return with a high-caliber team.
Kenny Wallace: Why not? Wallace drove the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet for D.E.I. to substitute for an injured Steve Park in late 2001 and early 2002, nearly winning the fall event at Rockingham. He also had a very good relationship with the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., helping push him to his final win at Talladega in 2000. Again, what D.E.I. needs right now is some veteran leadership to help get them through this transition period, and The Hermanator might be the one do it. He is popular, personable, and easy to sell to potential sponsors; he’s also strong on restrictor plate tracks, facilities where D.E.I. staked their reputation early on. What he has been able to do with the No. 78 machine this season has been admirable, but I can't help but think that Kenny’s never really gotten a fair shake to drive the best equipment and be the lead driver in an organization like D.E.I.
Jeremy Mayfield: Things are less than rosy at BDR for this former two-time Chase participant. Mayfield does qualify well, but he often comes up far short of making the show this year in the performance-plagued Toyota Camrys. Things were once looking up for Mayfield with former employer Evernham in 2005, but then they took his crew away from him and gave it to Kasey Kahne. Mayfield felt disrespected, disclosing his displeasure with Evernham spending too much time with his pet project / gal pal and not his race team during the middle of last summer. That led to another exit in a cloud of controversy for Mayfield, yet he always seems to rebound strong wherever he goes. It happened at Penske and again at Evernham; should he leave BDR, the fourth time might be a charm at D.E.I.
Johnny Benson/Mike Skinner: Why a driver of Johnny Benson's caliber continues to be left out of the Nextel Cup Series is beyond me. The 1995 Busch Champion and 1996 Cup Rookie of The Year, he nearly won the 2000 Daytona 500 in an unsponsored car with a new team, eventually providing MB2 (now Ginn) with its first Cup victory in 2002. Benson has worked with D.E.I. Technical Director and interim Crew Chief Steve Hmiel at Roush in the late 90's. Meanwhile, teammate Mike Skinner has experienced a resurgence and rebirth of sorts by getting off to a great start with three CTS wins so far in 2007. The only thing that might keep these two capable veterans out of the D.E.I. driver’s seat is their relationship with Toyota. Also, why either of these drivers has not been tabbed to help get Toyota into some Cup races (with the exception of one off rides for Benson or Skinner filling in at BDR) remains a mystery to many. Skinner and Iron Head were teammates against their wills at RCR, but Skinner managed to learn from the best while they were both there.
Bobby Hamilton, Jr: Hamilton, Jr. had a rough Cup outing with the No. 32 Cal Wells operation a couple of years ago, one that did some serious damage to his once crystal clean reputation. If it's any consolation for Hamilton, Jr., that team doesn't exist anymore…but neither does his once-promising Cup career. Currently seventh in Busch Series standings, the young man is simply trying to carry on racing without his father, who passed away from cancer in January. Trust me, this guy might be short in stature, but not in ability or confidence. As Mike Bliss stated once, he’s got a “ten-foot ego in a five-foot body.”
Steven Wallace: If Steven Wallace could find a way to reign in the enthusiasm before his first pit stop, this kid would be hard to handle wherever he goes. It would be nice to see Rusty get out of the booth and on top of the roof to help slow him down some, as without his dad’s support he seems to struggle during the Busch races. However, when keeping his car in one piece Wallace has run well and looked impressive at times; he just has a habit of running into immovable objects or other cars way too soon in a race. Rusty and Dale were competitors, but also had a great deal of respect for one another, giving the younger Wallace what could be his best chance yet for a Cup ride.
Steven Leicht: Currently Robert Yates Racing's driver in the Busch Series, Leicht might be in the driver's seat should a proposed RYR/D.E.I. merger happen. RYR can't be doing that great, and merger talk is nothing new; Robby Gordon had pen in hand ready to sign on the dotted line with them not long ago. Should D.E.I. make the switch to Ford, which seems to be the deal breaker for Yates, Leicht could be on the fast track to a Cup ride.
Shane Hmiel: Too bad for this guy. All he had to do was stay out of trouble, and he couldn’t do it. The kid had buckets full of potential…I hope for his sake the drugs were worth it. One of the biggest wastes of talent in recent memory.
Michael Waltrip: Hey, at least he knows the D.E.I. company policy, and he's had some time on his hands the last few months. I'm sure they still have some NAPA decals left over somewhere over there.
Danny O'Quinn: O'Really? How quickly one forgets about the Busch Series Rookie of The Year in 2006, a driver that succeeded despite driving for the lowest team on the totem pole at Roush Racing, crew-chiefed by Mark Martin's rear tire changer. After being thrown on the street, he might be working at a car wash; it’s absolutely criminal that Roush dropped this guy while keeping some other “young guns” on the roster. To be honest, O’Quinn is possibly the most deserving driver without a real ride right now, so if there is justice in this country, somebody needs to give this guy an honest shot at the big time…unfortunately, it won’t be D.E.I.
Dick Trickle: Alright, I’ll admit it; I just wanted to see his name in print again. It has been WAY too long.
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