NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Dale Earnhardt Jr. & DEI Just Going Through the Motions

This Monday at Atlanta, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will officially test a No. 88 Chevrolet with Hendrick Motorsports for the first time. That in-season move is just the latest in a transition that appears to be accelerating a bit faster than initially anticipated. Out of the Chase and out of the running for anything higher than 13th in the final point standings, it’s clear that Junior’s focus is quickly turning ahead towards 2008.

There’s just one problem with that: he still has a job to do for the rest of 2007 – and so does DEI.

What has transpired since the start of the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup by the No. 8 Budweiser team is nothing short of a half-hearted commitment to performance. And no, this is not all about the string of engine failures, common knowledge as to what’s supposed to be their continual Achilles’ Heel. Instead, this is about a team that has packed it in, content to collect sponsorship fees and paychecks while simply moving forward to make preparations for next season – with little to no regard for what happens now. And although I am often accused of being negatively biased in my opinion of Dale Jr., rest assured that I believe this is clearly a team effort. No doubt, DEI is every bit as culpable in the pathetic late-season performance being put forth as Junior himself.

Of course, you can’t completely turn a blind eye to the rash of mechanical failures with this team; at Martinsville, late-race engine woes dropped him out of the top five and nearly led to his eighth DNF of the season, a number which would set a record as Junior’s career high. Honestly, I have no idea what the scoop is on the raggedy engines that DEI has installed in the No. 8 cars. Maybe they are some kind of R&D experiment gone bad with the newly-aligned engine departments of DEI and Richard Childress Racing, which would at least be an understandable explanation for their unreliability. After all, who better than Junior to do some R&D work during his 10-week forced stay at DEI before bolting to what he hopes will be greener pastures? All of the RCR drivers are currently championship contenders, as is DEI’s Martin Truex Jr., a scenario which obviously exempts them from running any unproven equipment. Of course, there’s the No. 15 and No. 01 teams to consider, too; but unlike Junior, they employ drivers who are returning to the organization next year. In the end, it’s just another feather in the cap that for all Junior’s assertions to the contrary, his bag is already half-packed to leave – and he’s got one foot out the DEI door as you read this.

But what about the way this team has handled a pending divorce? DEI seems to be not only resigned to the “let’s just get this over with” arrangement, as well, but they’re willing to facilitate the indifferent attitude that has become evident in the No. 8 camp. This first became glaringly apparent when in late September DEI consented to not only let Junior’s cousin and crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., out of his contractual obligations for next year, but later agreed to not even force him to finish out the rest of this current season. In a surprising move, they permitted him move over to the HMS shop as early as two weeks ago to start work on the future of his new program. Tony Jr., who has been with Dale Jr. for six of his seven Cup seasons, left with his driver’s blessing, as the two were solidly in agreement the mechanic needed to pave the way for their new team’s 2008 Cup efforts. However, that appears to contradict Junior’s repeated comments that he desires to win a race this season. Apparently, the guy means that only if he doesn’t need to do it with his highly-valued crew chief.

That move surprised me, because I had initially been impressed and encouraged by Junior’s repeated assertions that he was committed to winning before season’s end. Yet when a “full-court press” should have been in play to finish out the 2007 season on a winning note, it is disappointing to see that neither the driver nor the owner cared enough to make the effort. Sure, Junior would like to win a race this season. That is not a unique desire among racecar drivers, though; most do prefer to win. Unfortunately, there is little focus, commitment or dedication by either Junior or DEI to getting there with what little time they have remaining together.

Longtime DEI employee Steve Hmiel provided – as part of his explanation for his recently announced departure from the organization – more evidence that neither management nor Junior is singularly dedicated to that cause. Hmiel, who served as Dale Jr’s. race-day spotter, said, “When Junior didn’t make the Chase and the No. 1 did, DEI wanted me in the garage to help fix wrecks and stuff like that.”

Hmiel continued, “They said Junior wants to try out his spotter for next year; he’s not in the Chase, so it’s not as critical as it was. ”

Now, if you’re truly committed to winning, wouldn’t you be willing to stay the course with the team you’re already with? Changes are hard enough when people are staying together – they’re 10 times worse when they all know this season will end with everyone going in 1,000 different directions.

Following this weekend’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, DEI will participate in two days of Car of Tomorrow testing with DEI driver Regan Smith behind the wheel of the No. 8. That is understandable; he is slated to run a DEI CoT at Atlanta next season. But what is not so understandable is that DEI has agreed to release Junior to go and test with HMS – with none other than the recently defected Eury Jr. assisting him there. Vice President of DEI, John Story, said, “We recognize that Dale Jr. and Tony Jr. both need to get going with their new program, and we’re not going to stand in their way.”

Clearly, the 2007 season shouldn’t stand in their way, either. Upper management of DEI, every bit as much as Dale Jr., has made a conscious decision to “write off” what’s left with the No. 8 team, simply choosing to start anew next year. Given the circumstances surrounding the highly publicized departure of Junior next season, they apparently did not have the desire and/or ability to motivate everyone involved to fulfill their obligations to the organization, sponsors, and fans to the best of their abilities through the last race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. As acrimonious as the relationship has been between Junior and his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, owner of DEI, perhaps it should be no surprise that Junior is only going through the motions and sticking around more out of legal obligations and his sponsors rather than any desire to leave on a winning note. If it’s true, that’s truly a shame; there could and should have been a better end to Junior’s driving career for the team that bears his father’s name.

Too bad no one involved cared enough to try and make it happen.

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