Dale Earnhardt Jr. shocked NASCAR Nation Thursday when he announced that the 2007 season would be his last driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team his father founded and his stepmother, Teresa, now runs. The bidding for Dale Jr.'s services figure to be fierce, with the winer walking away with arguably the most popular driver in the history of the sport.
So did Junior make the right move in leaving the team his father built for him to chase a Nextel Cup title with a rival organization? SI.com's panel of motor racing experts -- SI staff writers Lars Anderson and Mark Beech, and SI.com contributors Tom Bowles, Lewis Franck, Tim Tuttle and Mark Zeske -- battle it out six-wide.
OK, gentlemen, start your discussion.
A long, simmering feud between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother, Teresa, Dale's father's third and last wife, has finally reached a boiling point. Since he wasn't getting control of the racing operations that he previously demanded, there was nochoice for him but to leave.
As he's said he wants championships, and there are three top Chevy teams that can help take him there: Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. The dark horse in this is Haas/CNC Racing, which uses Hendrick engines. He could put his personal stamp on the team, and if it succeeds, his legendary star in NASCAR burns even brighter.
This is absolutely the right move for Dale to make. He thought about this for a long time. He is emotionally spent; this has really been hard on him. Why, because he didn't necessarily want to do this because all of his loyalty is to DEI. The easy way out for him would have been to stay at DEI and just been a racecar driver and who finishes from 5 to 15 week in and week out, but he doesn't want to that. If he wants to win championships, he had to leave because he never would have done it at DEI.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaving DEI is a great move, and one he had to make if he wants to win multiple Nextel Cup titles. Driver and team had already hit the ceiling, and Teresa Earnhardt was not going to let Junior have control of DEI. Junior's next move -- watch the offers come pouring in -- will be much more fun. Junior is NASCAR's most popular driver and Budweiser one of the sport's best sponsors, so the ultimate deal should be a good one. There's almost no way that Junior can make a bad decision, but expect Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing to be the two finalists. It would be fun to see him at Gibbs racing with Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin. Don't be surprised if Ginn Racing turns into a darkhorse candidate to land Junior and his coveted Budweiser sponsorship.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. leaving D.E.I. is a painful family divorce on a public scale, the type of drama that usually occurs behind closed doors thrown wide open for the world to see. As a longtime follower of the sport, I couldn't help but feel the disappointment so many felt yesterday that the Earnhardt brand will be perhaps forever broken in two, that the happy ending we're trained to expect in sports didn't appear out of thin air. The thing I took from Junior most of all yesterday was the pained look on his face during most of the morning. An open, honest person, he wears his heart on his sleeve and was genuinely saddened by a decision he never felt he'd have to make. No doubt, he fully understands the impact the decision will have on his dad's company, and while DEI will survive and be more successful than people think, it will clearly never have the same impact it did when Junior was its main attraction.
As for Junior's career, whether he made the right move will depend where he signs in this modern-day era, when equipment trumps talent nine times out of 10. It's clear he wants to land in a position to win a championship, and that would pin Richard Childress Racing as one of the clear frontrunners, and some reports already have him negotiating a deal. RCR represents a Chevy team in position to add a fourth team without ruffling feathers, and owner Richard Childress also holds the key to the vaunted No. 3. Should Childress be able to calm Junior's hesitation about joining his dad's former operation before the end of his career, he'll sign there and be immediately become a title favorite for '08. Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, if they can make room for Junior, also appear attractive options where he can experience immediate success with a seasoned program. Those three places are where Junior needs to go to win now; otherwise, he might find the going tougher than DEI for the next year or two. A team like Ginn Racing or even starting his own program, an option Junior's sister Kelley called a "last resort" yesterday, would put him with no better equipment than he had at D.E.I. -- a surefire recipe to experience the same type of results he's had the past two years.
One more thing to consider: the longer Junior stays a free agent, don't discount the possibility of Toyota. It's a longshot, for sure, but you better believe that manufacturer is looking for a marquee driver to take that program to the next level. If the powers that be convince Earnhardt he can be the cornerstone of a program they feel will dominate the circuit 3 to 4 years down the road, the money they offer may be just too good for Junior to pass up -- even if he says it's not about the cash.
Was it a good move for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to leave DEI? Absolutely. Junior's head won out over his heart, because it had to be difficult to leave the only team he'd ever driven for in NASCAR and one in which he had very emotional ties. DEI has been losing ground to the powerhouse teams, a situation that was magnified by the Car of Tomorrow. At the age of 32, in the prime of his career, Junior has to be with a team that can give him the tools to win the championship. It wasn't going to happen at DEI. With a new team, Junior has a chance to mold the operation the way he wants it.
A few weeks ago, Lars Anderson wrote a terrific column in SI about the late Dale Earnhardt's dream to see his son at the head of DEI. It's a real shame that Junior isn't going to be filling that role any time soon. I honestly never thought it would get to this point. He's too popular and the job just seems so special. Life will go on, but there's no doubt that yesterday was a sad day for Junior, and for NASCAR fans in general.
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