Dale Earnhardt Jr. became a free agent Thursday morning for the first and, probably, last time in his career. He knows he's leaving DEI. He doesn't know where he's going. He says he has an open mind as the greatest free-agent race in NASCAR history begins.
"It doesn't cost to listen," Earnhardt said. "We're going to listen to everybody. I want to give myself the best chance to be successful. I don't want to make this decision again. I won't allow myself to narrow it down."
Junior does have conditions. It has to be an organization he feels is capable of winning races and championships, starting in 2008 and going forward. The team has to run Chevrolets. And it has to be willing to integrate Junior's JR Motorsports into the program.
Money won't be an issue. No matter how much teams offer Earnhardt, he pays for himself and makes a profit for the team. Budweiser, Chevrolet and massive merchandising arrive with Junior. Good drivers and sponsors are likely to follow. Junior is a bonanza. Every Nextel Cup team can afford him.
Hendrick, Childress and Gibbs are the auspicious Chevrolet operations. Childress and Gibbs have room for one more Cup entry under NASCAR's limit-of-four policy. They're the logical front runners in the Earnhardt sweepstakes. Ginn and Haas CNC, both Chevrolet teams, also can present impressive packages to Earnhardt.
What about JR Motorsports gearing up to run Cup for Junior? Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, Junior's sister and business manager, said Thursday it would be considered only as a last resort. There's no chance of that happening.
That said, here's my top five picks to land Earnhardt Jr.
Say what, you say? Ginn is the best fit for Junior. Owner Bobby Ginn has shown a willingness to spend whatever it takes to reach the elite level. He went out and hired Mark Martin away from Roush and Ford last year and nobody saw it coming. The race shop size, number of people and resources -- Ginn has added a seven-post shaker rig this season -- have been significantly expanded. The team uses Hendrick engines and Martin has shown the cars are fast. Martin is 14th in the points and he'd be in the top five if he hadn't missed three races.
Earnhardt knows it's a competitive team looking for a driver to take it to the top of the mountain. It would be an opportunity for Earnhardt to establish a championship team, something that he likely would find appealing. When Dale Sr. joined Childress, it was a team much like Ginn, on the rise but not quite there yet. That fact won't be lost on Junior.
At Ginn, Earnhardt is the clear-cut No. 1 driver, the focus of the team. DEI didn't listen to Junior in how he wanted to improve; at Ginn, he'd be central to the decision-making, just like Martin has been. Ginn has Busch and driver development programs that could work with JR. Nothing in racing is a perfect fit, but Ginn and Earnhardt are close.
Childress has long been the sentimental favorite for obvious reasons. Dale Sr. won six of his seven Cup championships with Childress and Richard Childress watched Junior grow up. They're friends. JR Motorsports uses Childress engines in its Busch cars. It seems like a natural progression for Junior to go to Childress.
But Junior has often said, and he reiterated the point in his media conference Thursday, that he doesn't see himself driving the No. 3 until late in his career. Earnhardt doesn't want the constant comparisons to his father, comparisons that would be brought up even more often if he drove for Childress. In any car number, it's a distraction away from Junior's career that he doesn't want. Does Junior really want to race in his father's large shadow?
Childress has two established Chase-quality drivers in Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton and a young gun in Clint Bowyer. If JR Motorsports wants to help develop drivers, there would be no room at Childress in the coming years.
Rick Hendrick runs the best operation in NASCAR and that's going to appeal to Junior. But the No. 25, driven this year by Casey Mears, has never been as strong as the other cars. That would be the operation Junior would inherit.
Hendrick might allow some changes to it, but he's also known for stability and loyalty and a complete makeover is probably not in the cards.
Junior would also be joining a team with two Cup champions in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. If Earnhardt wants to elevate a team to the next level, Hendrick isn't the place for him. Hendrick also has a first-class Busch organization and there might not be room for JR to play a complimentary role.
Gibbs is first-class in everything it does, but could it expand to four cars? It's a big undertaking for any operation. Gibbs, like Hendrick, does not provide the opportunity for Earnhardt to be a trailblazer. With two-time champion Tony Stewart with Gibbs through 2009, at the least, and with Denny Hamlin an emerging star and likely future champion, Earnhardt might be going into a situation where he's No. 3 on the personnel list. He deserves and needs to be No. 1 if he's going to win a championship.
Owner Gene Haas has invested heavily in the past couple of years, with a new race facility and plans to expand to two full-time cars in Cup. The team also runs Hendrick engines and has outstanding technical resources, including a seven-post shaker rig. Haas is building the finest racing wind tunnel in the world and it will be ready next year. The building blocks are in place. But Haas isn't close to being a Chase quality team. Jeff Green is 24th and Johnny Sauter is 33rd.
Earnhardt wants to win championships immediately. It would be a hard sell for Haas, even though he does have very deep pockets. He's spending $40 million in cash to build the wind tunnel.
JR Motorsports would be a great addition to Haas and that's a plus in Earnhardt's eyes. But the team probably has too far to go to be competitive to get past a first meeting with Junior.