The hype that surrounded LeBron James’s free agency choice was rare and stands alone in the barriers of pop culture it penetrated. People that never watched one basketball game on TV or in the stands were suddenly weighing in on the issue, brandishing regurgitated facts to back up their various opinions on what team “King James” would and should choose to play for the next five or six years. The debate on the issue began over two years ago and intensified to an absolute boiling point as the NBA free-agency period began at midnight, July 1st. The frenzy culminated with the hour-long show, “The Decision” on ESPN, where he announced his intention to join Wade and the newly-signed Bosh on the Miami Heat and create a super-roster that would instantly be the L.A. Lakers’ biggest challenge to win the 2011 NBA championship.
While it never achieved “Team Edward vs. Team Jacob” status in the same way as LeBron’s decision, the NASCAR world shared a similar obsession over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s free agency in 2007. After talks broke down between Junior and Dale Earnhardt Inc., the namesake driver held a press conference and announced his intention to test the waters and swim from the dying DEI shore to greener pastures on the other side of the channel.
In the spirit of a NASCAR off week, let’s sift through some similarities and differences between “LeBron-a-palooza” and “Junior-stock” – there are more of each than you would expect, which will explain why LeBron James’ decision to take his “talents to South Beach” will produce better results than Earnhardt Jr.’s choice to break for better ground at Hendrick Motorsports.
Similarity #1 – The Players Involved: The reason that both the James and Junior free agency decisions sent fans into a bigger frenzy than an early Wal-Mart opening the day after Thanksgiving is simple: both are astronomically popular. While Earnhardt Jr. holds a wider margin in souvenir sales than LeBron James, James is just as recognizable, likable and widely known in his sport. James regularly has the best or second best-selling jersey in the NBA and is often the subject of highlight reels on ESPN’s SportsCenter and other outlets. Both players dominate the coverage of their sports, are highly coveted for interviews and autographs, surrounded by an army of people charged with manicuring their image, and are marketing dreams for sponsors. Wherever either James or Junior decided to go was automatically going to attract money and fans. What about success?
Difference #1 – Junior and James By the Numbers: The stats of the two titans of their sports are not even close. James is at or near the top of the NBA in average points per game most seasons, has taken his team to the playoffs every year since 2006 (even leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007.) He is the two-time reigning NBA MVP, has made the All-Star team every year since 2005 and even led the U.S. National Olympic basketball team to bronze and gold medals in 2004 and 2008 respectively. James’s only downside heading into free agency seemed to be his inability to lead his team through the glass ceiling of success in the playoffs, which most blamed on his supporting cast, which paled in comparison to that of other playoff and championship stalwarts the San Antonio Spurs, L.A. Lakers, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic.
Earnhardt Jr., on the other hand, has a much more modest survey. He has driven in each All-Star Race since his rookie year in 2000. (He won the race that year, which has at least qualified him for the rest.) He’s got 18 career Cup wins, but only three wins in his last 201 starts. One Daytona 500 victory (2004), but zero points-paying Cup restrictor-plate wins the last five years which were once his forte – his last plate win was at Talladega in October ’04. Add to this zero Cup championships, only three top-five points finishes (2003-4, 2006) in 10 full seasons, a paltry three Chase appearances in six years and a career-low 25th place points finish last season. Junior’s drought since his six-win campaign in 2004 has been perplexing. In 2005-7, Earnhardt’s final three years at DEI, his Notre Dame-like knack at winning (meaning barely any) was attributed by many to DEI’s inferior equipment vs. that of Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing, and some say even sabotage in the engine department in 2007 – after Junior announced his pending departure.
So, Junior and James entered free agent in different strata of their sports, but with equal hype. NBA teams doubtlessly craved James’s talents and certainty of luring cash-strapped fans to buy season tickets. NASCAR teams universally knew of Earnhardt Jr.’s ability to wheel a car and of his greater ability to assure tens of millions of dollars in sponsorship and merchandizing revenue for whomever he signed with. That left both with…
Similarity #2 – Limitless Options & Playing the Media: With virtually every NASCAR team in play for Dale Jr. in the late spring and early summer of 2007, the endless media cycle ran rampant with rumors. The night before Junior’s DEI departure announcement, NASCAR.com (once a journalistic pillar of the NASCAR media world – now no more than a hype center and NASCAR PR shop) ran a story claiming Junior was going to move his JR Motorsports team to the Cup Series and hire Cup teammate Martin Truex Jr. to drive in the two-car operation. With Richard Childress Racing set to make a press announcement the day after Junior’s, more garage talk swirled, suggesting that the RCR presser would be to announce Junior uniting with Childress and bring about a revival of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s No. 3. Neither was true. Nearly every team courted Dale Jr., but he made it clear that he wanted to remain in Chevys, which eliminated the chance that he would replace Mark Martin in the Roush Racing No. 6 Ford. Rumors surfaced about Dale’s pairing with Visa sponsorship and a fourth Joe Gibbs Racing team. Even the ephemeral Bobby Ginn, who recently had bought out the owners of C-level team MB2 Motorsports, courted Junior and impressed the racing bachelor with his purchasing of a seven-post rig, an expensive testing tool that Junior deemed DEI too cheap to purchase.
Rick Hendrick had a full stable of drivers for his Chevy team (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears) and didn’t appear to have any room to add Junior based on NASCAR’s four-team limit. On June 13th, however, Dale Jr. and Hendrick held a press conference and shocked the world by announcing that not only would Earnhardt join HMS, but promising third year driver Busch would be released to make room for the cash cow superstar. This opened the door for a summer of speculation on the potential sponsors, car number and paint scheme for Junior’s 2008 campaign – none of which were announced until September. Junior’s picking of Hendrick then needn’t be questioned. HMS had amassed at the time six Cup titles, 159 Cup wins, campaigned cars for the defending title winner Johnson and was fully equipped to handle Junior’s galactic marketing and sponsorship possibilities. Rick Hendrick also had known Junior since he was a kid and, unbeknownst to many, had assumed a fatherly role in Junior’s life, a void many thought filled solely by Childress. Junior even signed a contract on a napkin as a child, promising to drive for Hendrick someday. The fit seemed seamless.
Speculation on LeBron’s future fired up a couple of years ago, but really ignited as soon as his Clevland Cavaliers were eliminated from the NBA playoffs this year. Immediately, the Cavs fired coach Mike Brown then GM Danny Ferry resigned less than two weeks later. Throughout the past two seasons, bloated salaries were slashed and cut like unmolested rain forest to clear salary-cap room (something that does not exist in NASCAR) to land not only James, but one or two flashy wingmen that could bring The King a ring. Floundering franchises like the New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, L.A. Clippers and Heat owned this practice and their fans grimaced through painful seasons while the ray of hope that James would ride his horse to their city gates.
James played through the distractions and speculation in the 2009-10 season, without so much as hinting as to where he was leaning to land. Fans most desperate for LeBron’s services were his own in Cleveland and unlike Junior, James never ruled out a possible return the City of Rock and Roll. When midnight chimed on July 1st, James immediately met with the Knicks and Nets, jetted to the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland for both franchises’ pitches, and met with Miami, who was close to not only re-signing Wade but also the Toronto Raptors’ Bosh.
The Knicks tried to allure James and placate its nervous fan base by signing Amar’e Stoudemire to a max deal. The Bulls did the same by scooping up Carlos Boozer from the free agency China shop. The Nets seemed an attractive possibility, simply because they had the cap room, proximity to the Big Apple, were partially owned by James’s buddy Jay-Z, and had a big spending new owner in Russian magnate Mikhail Prokhorov. Bosh seemingly held the cards in this decision – whomever he chose to sign with would likely be James’s destination and if Cleveland had any hope of signing James, they needed Bosh. Reportedly, talks heated up and then died down between the Raptors and Cavs on a sign-and-trade deal, which would have allowed Bosh to get as much money as possible.
During the whole courting process for all three big free agents, James, Bosh and Wade hinted media hounds away from what may have already been decided much earlier: that all three would sign together with the Miami Heat and create an instant dynasty. Just before LeBron’s “The Decision” ESPN special, both Wade and Bosh, who had just announced they would play for the Heat, went as far as to say they thought LeBron was on a different page. On that Thursday night, millions tuned-in with the idea that James would pick the Bulls (good team, even better with Boozer, in major market), the Knicks (bad team, better with Stoudemire, major marketing potention in NYC), the Heat (to create the Miami dynasty) or the Cavaliers (to pursue max-money and stay loyal to home crowd). He chose the Heat, as you know, making for a surreal coup of the free agency market by the South Beach franchise – giving the Heat a Hendrick-esque roster. Junior’s longtime bond with Hendrick is comparable to the friendship forged by Wade, Bosh and James over the years, especially after their stint as teammates on the U.S. Olympic team, which some say may have led them to hatch the plan of all playing for the same team two years before it happened.
Both Junior and James turned their backs on quasi-competitive teams they had home ties with and with whom they broke into their respective sports, in favor of almost assured success with other franchises. But how have and will these choices pan out?
Difference #2: The End Result: The only real chinks in the Junior-to-HMS model that anyone saw beforehand were the expectations. The most marketable and one of the top-10 (maybe) best drivers in the sport was being paired with a winning and marketing machine. He had, ABSOLUTELY HAD, to succeed. Sharing the spotlight with stars Johnson and Gordon wouldn’t be a problem for Junior, who is surprisingly shy and low-key. If he fell short of the lofty expectations of “immediate championship contender” and “half a dozen races winner” then his legacy would firmly be fitted with an “Overrated” pit cap. Looks like there may be a new item to merchandize….
After jumping ship to the H.M.S. HMS (Hendrick Motorsports), Junior’s flaccidity in the No. 88 has been more astonishing than his bad years in the Bud car. Some have blamed this on his crew chief (both his fired cousin Tony Eury Jr. and his replacement Lance McGrew), lack of chemistry in the shared No. 5/No. 88 shop and a lack of focus by Junior himself. The lack of focus is of particular interest: Is Dale Jr. putting too much pressure on himself? Is he involved in too-many business endeavors? Is his well-known party-it-up lifestyle causing him to misstep on race day? Is he too hard on his crew chief? Does he give the right feedback? Is he washed-up? Does he want to win bad enough? If the problem is with Junior, he likely is not going to be fired. The amount of revenue he brings to HMS is a lot – even for them. Junior’s assets are so beneficial to Hendrick, he could essentially be caught in bed with Mrs. Hendrick and keep his seat. So far, in two-and-a-half years NASCAR’s most successful organization has gleaned Dale Jr. one points win, a career-worst year in 2009, and lots… and lots… and lots… of pressure. The tide is turning for Dale Jr. this season (he sits 13th in points), but consistently running in the top 20 is far less than anyone’s expectations.
James’s choosing the Miami Heat looks great on paper, as did Dale Jr.’s defecting to Hendrick Motorsports. In the Heat, James joins premier players Wade and Bosh, is paired with legendary GM and former coach Pat Riley, and already is Pied Piping, leading veteran role players to sign (or at least consider it) at the league minimum to keep the team under its cap and help insure the Heat’s already bloated statistical chances at winning the 2011 NBA Finals. But there are cracks in this fantasy lineup. How will Miami land the remaining players they need, role players they absolutely need to step up in crunch-time situation, when they have nearly zero cap room. Will LeBron be able to share the spotlight with both Wade and Bosh on what is and has been Wade’s team? With little bench depth, all three players will have to play a lot of minutes – can they endure? Will LeBron’s legacy be tarnished, because he has chosen to ride Wade’s coattails instead of competing against him and having a separate team built around him? Will Riley be able to contain himself by not actually getting to coach James? The juggernaut Heat will further inspire Kobe “The Assasin” Bryant to bring the two-time defending champ Lakers to an even higher level. Other teams will foul the HELL out of the “Three My Egos” or try their darndest to draw fouls from them, forcing head coach Erik Spoelstra to bench them to keep them out of foul trouble.
All these speculations are valid, but few think any of these hurdles are insurmountable. If not this coming year or the next, the Miami Heat will almost certainly win a title. If not, James, Wade and Bosh will be feeling the heat big time – and it won’t be on their jerseys or in the Miami air either.
The Boston Celtics pressed the issue and landed three A-list players in 2007 and immediately won a championship. There’s no reason that the Miami Heat, who have three younger and better stars shouldn’t do the same.
Earnhardt Jr.’s chapter at Hendrick Motorsports has not closed. A turnaround is in the works at the No. 88 team, but it may be too little, too late. At 35, Earnhardt Jr.’s chances to become a “great” driver are numbered. Even if Junior begins winning more often and contending for championships, the sting of his lack of success the last few years will be buzz in the background. His move to HMS had seemingly less x-factors than LeBron’s migration to Miami. However, if James’s career with the heat crashes and burns as bad as Junior’s has, it will go down as the biggest flop in free agency history. Judging by the parts and pieces in place in South Beach, this seems highly unlikely.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.
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