The Frontstretch: Breaking News! Earnhardt, Jr. To Hendrick! Earth Thrown Off Axis, Headed Towards Sun! by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday June 13, 2007

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If the rumors are true, and by all accounts they are, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has finally found a new home for 2008…

Hendrick Motorsports.

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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©2000 - 2008 Vito Pugliese and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Paul
06/13/2007 06:02 AM
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Great article – both funny and insightful. I especially enjoyed your characterization of the beer can tossing Talladaga fans and the 8 – 5 = 3 insight.

Ed
06/13/2007 06:04 AM
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Jr. is a teammate of Gordon’s. Are all the Jr. fans going to embrace their most hated driver? This should be better than politics, when they suddenly change their minds and embrace him.

Doug
06/13/2007 06:28 AM
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Hendrick must be NUTS!

Positivley INSANE!

He is actually throwing Gordon & Johnson to the DOGS!

Scenario: last race of the year, Johnson, Gordon, Jr. all can win the championship! Wonder what the “team orders” will be then! (or even thru the regular season fighting for the chance to make the (sic) CHASE!)

AND!!! If for some reason
Jr. does not win! What will the Jr. nation then do?? Destroy the track?

The only winner here is Hendrick himself and the money he will make thru this move! Each of the three (3) drivers turn out to be losers fighting one another for track position and for the chumpionship! (pun fully intended)!

M. B. Voelker
06/13/2007 06:45 AM
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For reasons I explained in detail at www.racejournalonline.com/index.cfm?Pagename=column&id=286 I think that, if the Kyle Busch out — Dale Jr. in rumors prove true, whoever gets Kyle will be the long-term winner in the situation.

People were quick to blame the contract distractions for Jr’s iffy performance early in the season. Again, if this proves true, I guess we know why Kyle’s been so unfocused and erratic recently. Nothing like winning a race and being told that you might lose your job to break your concentration.

Steve
06/13/2007 07:58 AM
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I thought this article was great, and I too thought all along that Jr. would either go with HMS or that HMS would back JRMotorsports if Jr. were to start up his own team. As a Gordon fan, I too am very curious to see how many TRUE Jr. fans are out there that will follow their driver to HMS. It’s always been my opinion that half of the Jr. Nation of fans only became fans because of Jr.‘s popularity, not because of his driving abilities. Yes he’s good, but he’s no Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and I won’t bring up the other recent past champion because I personally cannot stand him. Also, as a Gordon fan, I welcome Little E. to the team. One thing can be said of us Gordon fans, we never disliked Jr., he was a competitor of ours and a good one at that. I guess we’re just on a higher playing field (or track) than what Junebugs’ fans are.

Kenny
06/13/2007 08:54 AM
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I am a Gordon fan but I have always liked Junior, and think he is a good driver. I also believe if he does come to Hendrick he will win a title.

I called my sister last night and related how ironic it was that JR would be racing with Hendrick, ironic in the sense that many of his fans literally hate JG. She thought it was funny as well.

Talk about just rewards. Many JR fans cheered when JG wrecked into the wall at Lowe’s, and then booed when the race was called at Pocono, and Gordon won.

Now JR goes to Hendrick, talk about topping on the proverbial cake, what will they do now?

William T.
06/13/2007 11:04 AM
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Personally I don’t think Jr. is as good of driver as everyone thinks he is. He had just as good of equipment at DEI as did many of the other teams that had top competitive drivers. And I hope he goes to HMS and doesn’t win a single race next year…..that way he can start whinning & moaning all over again….and blame his lack of driving skills on something else

Rick Buchanan
06/13/2007 12:48 PM
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So now the Red Army throws what….FLOWERS instead of beer cans the next time Gordon wins?

Wayne
06/13/2007 03:05 PM
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I think Jr. is smarter than some would give him credit for. What better place for him to go and learn more about the business of running a race team than Hendrick. He has five years to get the cup, then go back home to run his own team with experience from racing with the best in the business.

Robert Eastman
06/13/2007 04:28 PM
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Is it possible that Rick Hendrick is letting Kyle Busch go, because he’s worried that there could be some kind of “insanity DNA,” that runs in the Busch family? Maybe he’s concerned that in the future, these traits might “explode” into a situation that could cause “intolerable embarassment” for the HMS sponsors and teams. Kyle’s comments at Bristol, could have been a wake-up call to Rick.

I’m sure that Roger Penske and Miller Brewing are “totally p**s*d,” with Kurt Busch,
no matter how much Roger swears alliegance to him. Look for Kurt to be dropped from Penske racing as quickly as they can do so, in a classy and financially sensible way. There is absolutely no reason for Roger to make excuses for him and try to share the blame for Kurt’s behavior.

Possibly, Rick Hendrick in all his wisdom, forsees a similar situation that he wants to avoid. Just speculating!

Shannon
06/16/2007 08:48 PM
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8 × 3 = 24
Just think about that one

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