Vito Pugliese · Wednesday June 13, 2007
If the rumors are true, and by all accounts they are, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has finally found a new home for 2008…
I see you looking at me like that! Don't act so surprised. After all, it wasn't just coincidence that Junior hopped in Kyle Busch's car this April after their tangle on the frontstretch at Texas. We didn’t know it then, but the seeds for the future were being planted, with Junior testing the waters with a team no one would have thought to be the favorite to land NASCAR’s biggest free agent this decade.
Once Junior first announced that he was leaving D.E.I. on May 10th, speculation ran rampant about where he was going to go…and most of it didn’t point towards Hendrick. Many fans were pulling hard for a move to Richard Childress Racing, just to see the No. 3 come out of retirement. Well, while everyone loves nostalgia, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had made clear his desire NOT to drive the No. 3 until he's farther along in his career, perhaps with a Nextel Cup Championship or two in hand by that point.
He's now one step closer to making those dreams a reality.
From the outset, the Hendrick deal has tremendous upside. Looking at it from purely a performance standpoint, Junior is with a team that can help him fulfill three of his requirements for a prospective team right off the bat: Win races. Win Championships. Win NOW. Yeah, put some giant check marks next to all of those. Jeff Gordon just won his fourth race of the year this past weekend, and Hendrick cars have won 10 of 14 races this year, including 5 out of 6 Car of Tomorrow events. Hendrick has nearly twice the manpower D.E.I. does, and the people they have building their cars have set the benchmark for racing excellence through most of the last two decades. Since 1994, Hendrick Motorsports has captured four Daytona 500s and six Nextel Cup Championships, more than any other organization during that span. We're not even halfway through the season, and all four of the Hendrick cars have won a race so far this year.
Beyond the competition, there’s the financial impact this move will have for both parties involved: for if it is often said race cars don't run on gasoline, they run on money. That old axiom is clearly true in NASCAR, and the key to starting a race car is solid marketing. With the addition of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Rick Hendrick has scored quite a packaging coup: he’s now accumulated the threesome of Jimmie, Jeff, and Junior, with each driver representing a different part of the United States. You’ve got Jimmie Johnson, the former desert racer and West Coast native; Jeff Gordon, a native of Pittsboro, Indiana (or Vallejo, California, depending on the geographical location of this week’s track) and a Midwest sprint car transplant. Finally, you have Dale Earnhardt, Jr. completing this multi-faceted marketing puzzle; one of the last links to NASCAR's storied past, and a genuine, son of the south hero to millions of Americans born below the Mason-Dixon line.
With all of this good fortune being celebrated in Uptown Charlotte, however, it is bound to come at someone's expense. Let's change gears for a minute and take a closer look at those about to be less fortunate:
Kyle Busch: Somebody had to go to make room for Junebug, and it looks like The Shrub has been trimmed from Hendrick's roster to do so. It's sad to say, but..well… it isn't like we haven't seen this coming. Looking back, the Daytona 500 has become a microcosm of Busch’s roller coaster season. Coming to the checkered flag running 3rd, Busch lost control of his car exiting turn four, triggering a 20-car pileup that had Clint Bowyer upside down and on fire. That type of mixed bag performance has haunted Busch through the year, even during his better races. His win at the first Car of Tomorrow race at Bristol was impressive, but his comments shortly thereafter (namely that the Car of Tomorrow sucked) drew the ire of many, including his ever-supportive owner that appears to have finally lost his patience.
Unfortunately for Busch, it’s easy to see how that patience wore thin amongst a festival of bent sheetmetal, wrecked race cars, and stinging criticism from all angles that has clung to his team these past eight weeks. Following the now infamous Texas incident with Junior, Busch has left behind a wake of scrap metal that would make Fred Sanford green with envy. Wiping out a fleet of cars faster than Lindsay Lohan on a weekend bender, the tipping point for Busch’s career seemed to come at the All-Star race, when Kyle took out his brother Kurt in a pointless, ill-advised pass. Upon delivery of the battered machine to the garage area, Rick Hendrick was standing with crew chief Alan Gustufson, looking very un-Rick Hendrick like and very upset. That moment, more than any other, rings clear as the point at which the younger Busch may have finally sealed his fate.
So what happens now for the 22-year-old? Max Siegel, President of Global Operations at D.E.I. has expressed interest in signing him, and if the organization can retain Anhieuser-Busch as a sponsor, the last name tie-in is perfect for Busch to obtain a fresh start. The only question is… does anyone really care at this point?
Joe Gibbs Racing: They seemed like the most logical player in all of this, what with the chummy relationship Junior has with both Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, as well as the Gibbs cars being among the few that could keep pace with Hendrick CoT machinery. However, Joe and J.D. Gibbs wanted nothing to do with the Budweiser sponsorship for religious reasons, and with a very powerful personality like Tony Stewart, Gibbs would probably not be the ideal situation for Junior to move into when you think things through. J.J. Yeley has shown improvement in recent weeks in an attempt to retain his seat in the No. 18 car, and if Denny Hamlin had any semblance of luck, he would have won four races by now. While anyone would be a fool to turn down Junior, it appears this probably would not have been in anyone’s best interest.
Ginn Racing: Many thought Bobby Ginn's operation would be the place where Junior would make a good fit. Not afraid to spend money and spend it in the right places, the former MB2 team has exceeded even the wildest expectations so far in 2007. Mark Martin is currently sitting in a Chase spot after missing three events; had he run them, he’d most likely be sitting fourth in points right now. While Martin has run strong, though, his best shot at a win was Daytona, and though the cars are consistent, none have been real contenders since then. Just look at Martin’s teammates for proof; neither Joe Nemechek nor Sterling Marlin have a Top 5 finish to their credit this season.
It’s clear that Ginn has just begun the building process, and Junior wants to win NOW. While Ginn Racing appears to be a reincarnation of Hendrick Motorsports from the late 80's, they are still a few years away from being near the level Hendrick is currently at. In all honesty, this would actually be a perfect situation for Kyle Busch to step into. He has always earned the praises of Mark Martin, and Mark in his newfound role as mentor and coach has the perfect lump of coal to mold into a diamond with Busch. Busch respects Martin and is one of the few people who he'll listen to and abide by; he also desperately needs a boost of confidence and guidance from somebody who knows a little something about disappointment. In the end, while Ginn lost out on Earnhardt, Jr., the alternative may not be so bad after all.
Penske Racing South: This was a longshot at best, and was mostly the result of Kurt Busch doing his best impersonation of his brother the last few weeks: wrecking all by himself, going Mad Max on pit road, and producing other such Kurt-isims the last couple of months that have endeared him to nobody besides his wife Eva. Couple that with the wild inconsistency of the Dodge Charger, and it’s been rumored Penske would possibly be switching to Toyota or Chevrolet for 2008, in addition to adding a 3rd team. While I believe that 3rd car is for Sam Hornish, Jr., many were under the mistaken impression that the proposed Mobil 1 car would be driven by Little E. Alas, such a farfetched marriage is not to be.
Casey Mears: Just Casey's luck; wouldn't you know it, he FINALLY breaks through with that first win at the Coca-Cola 600, beginning to establish himself and the No. 25 as a winning combination with Hendrick Motorsports. Now, with this announcement the very same No. 25 car could very well be relegated back to putting the R & D in Rick HenDrick. The No. 25 team has, since the dawn of Hendrick's inception, been teetering on the verge of greatness. Tim Richmond established this car as a winner shortly before he fell ill and his subsequent untimely passing, but since the early 90's, the team just never seemed to be able to pull it together and become a weekly contender like all other cars in the Hendrick stable. A smattering of wins, a smorgasbord of drivers, no matter what…the No. 25 just can't ever seem to catch a break. With Junior coming on board, it’s likely that streak will continue for the fourth team left on the totem pole.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: That's right; while Hendrick certainly is a powerhouse, it is not without its struggles as well, just like any other race team. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the established drivers at Hendrick, and their So-Cal buddy Casey Mears finally won a race, beginning to establish himself as a top-tier driver in the premier racing division in North America. Junior has gone from being the driver an entire company revolved around to arguably 3rd on the depth chart as far as Hendrick Motorsports is concerned, with a driver behind him that’s won more than Junior has over the past season of racing. During the shop tours he has been taking lately, Junior was surprised at just how well equipped D.E.I. was compared to other teams. With Martin Truex, Jr. suddenly running up front and winning in dominant fashion with what’s soon to be his old team, Junior may actually end up having taken a step backwards at this point a year from now.
Drunk Talladega Fan: This guy's main purpose for getting up in the morning and not throwing himself into a woodchipper is to get all beered up and wait for Jeff Gordon to come by, just so he can hurl 12 ounces of rebellion over the catchfence that Bobby Allison couldn't tear down with a 210 MPH Buick. But now that his arch nemesis is going to be his favorite driver's teammate, who is he going to throw stuff at? Looks like the guy that never got much attention from mommy and daddy is going to have to find a new outlet for his angst. Perhaps finger-painting will be his calling.
Well, now that this decision is over with, now we can begin obsessing over who will fill the No. 8 seat at D.E.I., Toyota's continued struggles, how much longer will Kurt Busch test Roger Penske's patience, and where Kyle Busch will end up in 2008. Personally, I knew it would be Hendrick all along. Consider the parties involved, what holiday is Sunday, and also do some simple math:
8 - 3 = 5.
Have fun with that one, all of you numerologists and conspiracy theorists. Except for you, Drunk Talladega Fan. Go back to eating your paste and talking to your mittens.
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