Tom Bowles
Thursday October 1st, 2009

Heading into Kansas this weekend, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne sit first, third, and 12th in points, respectively. Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits 22nd. At the end of the year, they'd all better send Junior a really nice thank you card.

Who would have predicted that two years after leaving his father's former company, the sport's most popular driver would be helping other drivers more than he's helping himself? Yet that's exactly what's happening as we'll point out in this little game of "What if?," which shows how that one simple move changed the current complexion of the sport -- and left Junior worse off statistically than ever before.

Let's look at the dominoes first. Consider what would have happened had Earnhardt chosen a different path and re-signed with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., in early 2007:

• When DEI merged with Ginn Racing in the middle of that summer, Mark Martin would have had a formidable team to build his part-time career around. Working with development driver Aric Almirola, Martin would have ended up working with Earnhardt, Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard in 2008, each with full-time sponsors and the type of stable environment where he'd stay semi-retired no matter who came along. Earnhardt and Rick Hendrick may be good friends, but as rivals would he ever have let a guy like Martin leave? Probably not.

• Meanwhile, with DEI remaining a viable organization, Chip Ganassi would have had no one to merge with as his team fell apart at the end of 2008. Backed into a corner, he would have had to spread the Target sponsorship across two cars to remain competitive -- a formula that helped destroy his team in the first place -- or choose to go it alone with Montoya. Considering single-car teams have won just one race since 2003, that's probably not the formula you'd need to make the Chase this year, much less win it.

Also consider the Ganassi-Earnhardt merger forced a switch to Chevrolet, along with the research, development and ECR engines that came with it. The organization had struggled along with Dodge the last few seasons, and Montoya has clearly benefited from the handling package already in place from the second DEI engineers came on board.

• Finally, with Earnhardt taking control of DEI, the Budweiser sponsorship would have stuck with a pitchman seemingly tailor-made for their company. That would have left Kahne and the No. 9 car searching for sponsorship back then or forced to go with Dodge for one more year (2008). And considering Dodge's financial problems, where would that have left its most promising driver if their funding dried up? Probably with Joe Gibbs Racing, as they'd have no one in line to replace J.J. Yeley at the No. 18 car two years ago (which missed the Chase this year).

Remember, a Junior re-signing with DEI would have kept Kyle Busch at Hendrick's No. 5 -- the same car Martin drives now -- leaving Gibbs more desperate to keep Tony Stewart last year once Chevrolet came calling with millions for him to become a driver/owner.

The list goes on and on, a line of about two years' worth of deals triggered by the sport's most marketable driver spurning the "evil" stepmother in a public family drama. But while Earnhardt was supposed to be the victor, he has yet to receive any of the spoils. In his final two years with DEI, he scored one win, 17 top 5s, 29 top 10s, and one Chase appearance. That's more than the one win, 12 top 5s, 21 top 10s, and one Chase over nearly the same period with Hendrick.

It's a tough story for another day, a man who went with his head but instead may be secretly harboring a broken heart. With Earnhardt all but forgotten amidst five Hendrick-supported cars in the Chase, you wonder if he thinks back on whether he made the right decision.

But rest assured there are plenty of people happy in its wake.

• The reason people are writing this week the Chase is Jimmie Johnson's to lose is because it's the truth. He's the defending champion of this weekend's race, and a win there would not only give him the point lead but also a likely 100-point lead over every driver in the field not named Mark Martin. That would give him the cushion to have a bad day over the final seven races and still fall to no lower than second in points.

So why are people not giving Martin the credit he deserves? Simple: the 50-year-old has had so much bad luck throughout his career, he could get struck by lightning on pit road and no one would so much as bat an eyebrow. Nobody can consider him a serious contender until he gets through Talladega ("the lotto," as he likes to call it) with a better than 40th place finish.

Should Johnson win as expected, the only hope for the rest of the field is that someone overaggressive (Montoya?) makes a statement by beating the No. 48 at an intermediate track while "rattling his cage" a bit and roughing him up on the track. Someone, somewhere has to rattle Johnson's confidence; otherwise, that fourth title is in the bag as long as luck stays on his side.

• Buzz around the garage at Dover was that Reed Sorenson will step out of the Cup Series next year, taking a step back by signing with Braun Racing to run a limited schedule in the Nationwide Series. It would be a great move for the 23-year-old, who could take a David Stremme-like path back to Cup with a couple of successful years winning races and maturing at a lower level.

That leaves Stremme, Bobby Labonte and Casey Mears as the three biggest free agents remaining. Stremme has been seen popping in and out of Rusty Wallace's hauler the last few weeks, with rumors circulating he'll return to that team in some capacity next year. As for Mears, well, he could be the odd man out in February 2010, as if Labonte can bring sponsorship money to Richard Childress Racing, sources say he's got the inside track for the No. 07 ride. Childress said last weekend Mears' option has not yet been picked up, a move blamed on sponsorship, but also a convenient way to dump a driver who's performed below expectations this season.

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