Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side-By-Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!
Today’s Question: Three months into one of the biggest free agent moves in history, which one of NASCAR’s two biggest drivers has the upper hand (i.e. better deal)? Is it “Good Guy” Dale Earnhardt Jr. – NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver – or resident “Bad Boy” Kyle Busch – its most aggressive?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Got a Better Deal Than Kyle Busch in the Team Swap
The biggest pieces to fall in last year’s Silly Season deluge were Earnhardt Jr. and Busch. Since Junior essentially replaced Busch at Hendrick Motorsports, many have kept close tabs on which driver came out on top in the switch. In the short run – looking at the current point standings and the wins column – Busch seems to have the edge. In the long run, however, Earnhardt Jr. will show as the driver who reaped the most benefits with his new team.
When assessing any free agency move, one has to consider the situation that a driver was in before landing their new gig. At Hendrick, Busch was running in top-flight equipment and contending for race wins week in, week out. He did have some minor scrubs with his teammates and other teams on the circuit; but overall, he was in a dream situation. Over at DEI, Earnhardt Jr. was not.
Junior has been fighting the demons of his stepmother Teresa’s shadow for the majority of his career. When this tension exploded before last season, Junior not only became a huge target for media attention (especially when he announced his departure from DEI), but he became more detached from the organization he drove for than ever before. Though he was running in the top 10 most races, Junior was running there less often than Busch and the No. 5 team, with his motors puking more than a frat boy in Panama City each weekend.
In Junior’s new situation at Hendrick Motorsports, the environment couldn’t be more different. He is teammates with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, meaning that he can flee from some of the pressure of being a team’s only marquee driver – a pressure that he wanted to avoid at times at DEI. His transition also did not cost him a dime; the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard souvenir sales are through the roof because of the driver change. Earnhardt shed the image of a crazed, partying Bud drinker, then rebranded his image by switching to a more clean-cut team, with tamer and more lucrative sponsorship to boot.
At HMS, Rick Hendrick and Junior’s sponsors allow him to drive his own cars in the Nationwide Series. HMS also has bolstered JR Motorsports by merging the main component of its Nationwide Series operation with the team, giving it a much greater advantage.
On the Cup side, Earnhardt Jr. is stepping into Hendrick equipment that has won the last two Cup championships and dozens of races. His transition is less of a hindrance, since his cousin Tony Eury Jr. left DEI to take command atop the No. 88 pit box. This season, the No. 88 team has run well; but Dale Jr. really has not run much better in his career. Take away his wreck at California, and the veteran is within a few points of leading the standings himself.
Yes, Kyle Busch has won more races this year, and is making a lot of noise. His situation at Gibbs is good, but could easily sour if the Tony Stewart contract drama plays out the rest of this year… or even into next. Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart all have flashes of volatility, but if Stewart leaves, the chemistry could easily be upset by the addition of another driver.
Busch’s deal at Gibbs is almost as good as Junior’s, but Junior’s situation beats it. The No. 88 team holds advantages in both team chemistry and marketing, and could overtake the No. 18 on performance – especially if Busch keeps making bonsai, boneheaded moves like the one he made on Saturday night. – Doug Turnbull
Kyle Busch Making Mincemeat Out Of Junior Early On
Three months into his move to HMS, Earnhardt Jr.’s performing better than most prognosticators would have expected at this point. With over 400 laps led and seven top-10 finishes, he’s showcasing the consistency he lacked over at DEI. Free from the stress of that family team, there’s no question Junior’s come out of the box strong.
But he’s also looking up at the man he replaced.
While Junior’s been good, Busch has been great; and in doing so, he’s turned what could have been a devastating firing from Hendrick into a launching pad for a career change that’s making his former owner take notice. 10 races into the year, Busch is leading the standings by 18 points, and he’s 104 ahead of Junior in third; add two wins and a series-leading six top-five finishes into the mix, and it’s clear Busch has run up front early and often in 2008.
Of course, the difference between Junior and Busch is that Busch has cashed in on his opportunities to win. While the No. 88 car has had a tendency to fade over a race’s final segment, the No. 18 simply turns it on when it matters most. Yes, I’m also keeping in mind Junior has faced quite a rebuilding job at Hendrick (the No. 88 was the former No. 25 car that missed the Chase last year); but the task faced by Busch at Gibbs was just as difficult… if not more so. When Busch took his Toyota to victory lane in Atlanta, it was the first time the No. 18 had visited the winners’ circle since Homestead in November of 2003; in comparison, Junior’s new car has won more recently than he has, taking the checkered flag last May at Lowe’s Motor Speedway with former driver Casey Mears.
But while Junior’s wins have yet to come, Busch is racking them up everywhere he turns; so far this season, he’s got a total of seven of them amongst NASCAR’s top three divisions of Cup, Nationwide, and Craftsman Trucks. All of those have come courtesy of Toyota support, who’s left no stone unturned in their quest to back their newest young talent as he heads towards the top. It’s a refreshing change from an environment at Hendrick in which Busch always seemed like the odd man out.
But over at Gibbs, Busch doesn’t have to worry about being out of place; it’s an organization that deals with its fair share of political incorrectness in drivers Stewart and Hamlin. While the three men are known for their unique personalities, that’s actually gotten all of them getting along far better than anyone would have thought; and suddenly, with the departure of Stewart next season, Busch could rise to No. 1 on the Gibbs totem pole in the matter of 12 months. When was he ever going to rise to No. 1 at Hendrick with drivers like Johnson and Gordon on that team? For that matter, when is Junior ever going to do the same?
Ever since that firing, Busch has developed this sense of self-righteousness; he’s determined to prove those former bosses they made a mistake. That’s led to added confidence and an aggressive style that’s reached a whole new level; on Friday night, Steve Wallace made contact with Busch and promptly got out of the way on the final lap in order to give him his spot back. If that doesn’t tell you how much drivers are afraid of Busch these days, I don’t know what will.
Of course, that all translated into NASCAR’s Most Aggressive Driver making contact with NASCAR’s Most Popular Saturday night; in doing so, Busch robbed Junior of the win he’s been seeking for nearly two years. Afterwards, the youngster was hardly apologetic; instead, he was acting as if he was the victim, while a shocked Junior was simply left to look up at the leaderboard and wonder what might have been.
Kyle Busch did nothing of the sort, because he’s already content with what is; and frankly, he shows no signs of changing those emotions anytime soon. Both on and off the racetrack, he’s made a clear statement Rick Hendrick should be sorry he let him go.