Dale Earnhardt Jr's Future Looks Great
When you are the face of any sport, the spotlight is always going to be on you. Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows about that fact as well as anyone. He has been gaining the attention of the fans and the media since his father worked him into the Winston Cup Series with one of the richest sponsorship deals in not just NASCAR, but in pro sports in general. At the start of his career, he was mainly known as just the son of Dale Earnhardt. But following his father's tragic death at the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Jr. has become much more than that. He was looked to carry the legend of his father as well as fulfilling his own legacy. All that has made him the face of NASCAR. That can be a lot for any one person to deal with. But, Dale Jr. has dealt with it as well as anyone could imagine.
Since making his Winston Cup debut in 1999, Dale Jr. has raced for one team. Driving the #8 Budweiser Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company started by his father. In a time where many drivers switch racing teams on a frequent basis, nobody could ever imagine Dale Earnhardt Jr. even leaving DEI. Even in times where it got rough within the race team, Dale Jr was seen as the guy to carry the team into the future. In recent months, however, there were some indications that may not be the case. But when the rumblings were being heard for the first time, most of the NASCAR fan base scoffed at it. Everyone basically assumed that any gap between Dale Jr. and Teresa Earnhardt would be closed and a deal would be reached to keep him at DEI. As it turns out, the gap was wider than what anyone could imagine.
It's not common for a step-parent and a step-child to have differences. It's not common, however, for it to come out in the national media. It was early in the year when we found out how big the disagreement was between Dale Jr. and Teresa. The big clue was when Teresa made her comments about how Dale Jr. had to decide if he wanted to be a celebrity or a race car driver. It was a comment that seemed to tick Dale Jr. off. It added an even more uneasy feeling to the talks between the two that was already tense to begin with. Dale Jr. was asking for 51% ownership of DEI, a demand that didn't seem too unreasonable to many. As time went by, the differences between Dale Jr. and Teresa got no closer to being settled. In May, the announcement that hardly anyone could ever see happening, was made. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leaving DEI.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s announcement of his "free agency" set off a frenzy of wild speculation. It made things tough for Dale off the track. It was adding to what was an already tough season on the track. Dale Jr. has not won since Richmond in 2006. So far in 2007, Dale Jr. has encountered numerous troubles. Incidents in a few races have ended hopes for wins, but a bigger story has been the numerous engine troubles that have hit the team. There was also the 100 point penalty docked from Dale because of infractions earlier in the season. The on track problems and the off track rumors about where he would race in 2008 was making for a rough season.
All the speculation ended in June when his new team was announced. Most of the rumors involved Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress, and even Ginn Racing. The NASCAR world was stunned when word got out that it would be Rick Hendrick. It was something that made the entire NASCAR nation drop its collective jaw. In the hours and days since the announcement was made, the reactions ranged from who's leaving Hendrick (As it turns out, it was Kyle Busch, who will be driving for Joe Gibbs in 2008), to how will he get along with who is seen as his main rivals, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Even some of Dale Jr.'s fans didn't understand the move. Some saw it as being kind of like when the New York Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez.
When you get right down to it, Dale Earnhardt Jr to Rick Hendrick Racing makes sense. In reality, it makes a lot of sense. Rick Hendrick is one of the winningest owners in NASCAR history. Since 1995, Hendrick drivers have won six Winston/Nextel Cup Championships (Jeff Gordon in '95, '97, '98, '01; Terry Labonte in 1996; Jimmie Johnson in 2006). That in itself shows the talent that has been in that racing stable. Rick Hendrick also has a very keen eye for talent. Rick was a driving force in getting Gordon, Johnson, and Kyle Busch into the top level of NASCAR. Add to all of that is the major financial backing that Hendrick Racing has. With the money that Hendrick Racing has, they can afford the best equipment.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not just a commercial figure in NASCAR. He can drive a race car. Even his critics and those who aren't a fan of his will admit that fact. Remember, he has 17 Winston/Nextel Cup wins to his resume. But you have to think that the turmoil he's had to endure has been a factor in his rough season. That won't be the case with Rick Hendrick. He already seems to be more at ease when his future with Hendrick is brought up. As far as any conflicts with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Casey Mears, that's not likely to happen.
While Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not going to mail in the remainder of the 2007 season, his future starting in 2008 with Hendrick Racing is looking good. Just look at his excitement in regards to it. The reaction he had when the two cars he will be driving for Hendrick were revealed shows that. The excitement was genuine. Don't be surprised to see the Mountain Dew Amp or the National Guard Chevrolet with #88 on the side make at least a couple of visits to a winner's circle next season.
It may not be long until Teresa realizes the mistake in not keeping him at DEI.