It is hard to argue with the decision-making of a man who has 14 championship banners hanging from the ceiling of his motor sports headquarters and nearly 200 Sprint Cup Series victories on his racing resume. A man who saw the potential in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson when they were young, and also recognized the talent that remained in Terry Labonte and Mark Martin near the end of their careers.
Indeed, Rick Hendrick has made few mistakes during the nearly 30 years he has been the head of Hendrick Motorsports. He is easily the most successful team owner currently in NASCAR (Jack Roush is a distant second on the Cup victory list with 124), and the argument could be made that he is the best in NASCAR history.
But there is one recent decision Hendrick made that is beginning to look like an extremely bad one. It occurred midway through the 2007 season, when it was announced that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leaving DEI to join Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. In the process, Hendrick dumped a young talent named Kyle Busch.
At the time the move seemed to make perfect sense. Not only was Earnhardt the most popular driver in NASCAR, but he had also won 17 Cup races in his first seven seasons. It was widely assumed that all he needed to become a consistent championship contender was to hook up with one of the top organizations in the sport, a team that could provide him with the deep resources that simply were not available at DEI.
The lineup of Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson was quickly dubbed NASCAR's version of The Dream Team and was compared to the Murderer's Row New York Yankees of 1927. Numerous victories were sure to follow for Earnhardt, as well as that elusive Cup championship. In addition, his marketing potential appeared poised to skyrocket, which would bring additional attention and dollars to Hendrick Motorsports.
Busch, on the other hand, was a talented but erratic driver who seemed determined to make enemies with nearly everybody in the sport. Yes, he won four times in his first three Cup seasons and finished in the top 10 of the point standings twice. But his often immature behavior repeatedly overshadowed his driving ability. He was constantly feuding with other drivers and with members of his own team. His hot temper simply did not mesh with the corporate cool found at Hendrick Motorsports.
The breaking point probably occurred in April 2007 at Texas. Busch was involved in an accident late in the race and, in a typical fit of rage, stormed from the car and quickly left the track, apparently believing he was done for the day. But his team managed to repair the car well enough to get it back out for the final few laps, which would enable Busch to pick up some extra points. The problem was, by then Busch was nowhere to be found.
Ironically, he was replaced for those final laps by Earnhardt, who was involved in the same accident that damaged Busch's car. A few months later, it was announced that Earnhardt was replacing Busch for good.
This is where the tale of these two drivers took an unexpected turn. Earnhardt remains a marketing machine, and Busch all too often is still a boorish brat. But on the track, in terms of pure numbers, Earnhardt-for-Busch is turning out to be one of the most lopsided trades in sports. Consider the following:
• Since being picked up by Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, Busch has 19 Sprint Cup victories. Earnhardt has one, and that lone win came midway through his first season with Hendrick.
• Earnhardt currently is on a 116-race winless streak. Busch's longest winless streak during that stretch is 22 races.
• In 131 starts since the beginning of the 2008 season, Busch has 49 top-five finishes (37.4 percent) and 67 top-10s (51.1 percent). Earnhardt's totals are 18 top-fives (13.7 percent) and 38 top-10s (29 percent).
• Busch has made the season-ending Chase for the Championship in two of the past three seasons and has already clinched this year. Earnhardt has made the Chase only once in those three seasons (in 2008) and is still on the bubble this year.
• And perhaps the most telling number of all, Busch is 26, while Earnhardt turns 37 in October.
There is also the tricky matter of desire, which cannot be quantified so easily. Busch has stated that his career goal is to reach 200 combined NASCAR victories (in Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series). Amazingly, he is already more than halfway there. And there is no doubt that at least part of Busch's prickly personality stems from his overwhelming desire to win.
Meanwhile, it is sometimes difficult to tell exactly how much desire Earnhardt has. In post-race interviews he often seems content to have squeaked out a top-10 finish. He rarely displays the fiery attitude that made his father so famous (and so successful).
Back in 2007, Earnhardt was asked about his need to win a championship. His answer was interesting:
"Probably in a lot of people's eyes it would help validate my career, but I won't carry any burden with me if I don't," Earnhardt said. "The thing about it is, I didn't ever think I'd be good enough to race full time. I didn't think I'd be able to hold down a job as a driver or win at the Cup level. I never thought I was going to make it. I just never counted on it, so I had no goals set as a driver. I raced Late-Models, didn't win anything. It was basically a hobby.
"I've already accomplished more than I ever thought I would. I've shook hands and met people and done things I never thought I'd see or do. I have quite a lot of fond memories of my career up to this point already."
Compare that attitude to the driver who says he wants to win 200 NASCAR races, and who never seems truly happy unless he is celebrating in Victory Lane.
Whenever Hendrick sees yet another one of Busch's ridiculous antics, such as Wednesday when he intentionally wrecked Elliott Sadler in the Truck Series race, it is certainly possible he is glad he doesn't have to deal with that headache and regrets nothing about the decision to let Busch go.
Busch undoubtedly is a handful, and it takes a specific type of personality to be able to deal with him. Had Busch remained at Hendrick Motorsports, his attitude might have caused friction within the organization and even derailed Johnson's current run of five consecutive championships.
It's possible, but no one knows for sure. What is certain is that on the race track, Kyle Busch simply is a better driver than Dale Earnhardt Jr. And when the day comes that Busch wins the Sprint Cup championship, which he inevitably will, that is one banner that will not be added to Hendrick's collection.