Is NASCAR Future Brighter for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a Driver or a Team Owner?

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Is NASCAR Future Brighter  for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a Driver or a Team Owner?
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
As a team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left) has learned lots already from Rick Hendrick.

There is no disputing the fact that this already has been one heck of a year for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But has it been better for him as a driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series or as a car owner with JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series?

And does the success he's having as a car owner foreshadow what's likely his brighter, not-so-distant future in the sport?

Before you dismiss the first question by saying that of course it's more important for him to win the season-opening Daytona 500 and contend for a championship in NASCAR's premier national touring series, let's consider also what he's in the process of doing for the sport on the Nationwide side.

Is the future brighter for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a driver or as a team owner?

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As hard as it may be to believe, this season marks the 10th anniversary for the entry of JR Motorsports into NASCAR's Nationwide Series. From the start, Dale Jr. and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, insisted that you never say never, but they certainly had no plans to rush into being owners in the far more expensive Sprint Cup Series.

But 10 years is a long time.

And if JR Motorsports is ever going to jump into Sprint Cup, there might be no better time than within the next couple of years. Its two current full-time drivers include Chase Elliott, an 18-year-old superstar in waiting, and the very capable, underrated Regan Smith. Plus, if the organization ever wants to expand, who wouldn't want to drive for Junior, and what sponsor wouldn't want to be part of his company's coming-out party in Cup?

Elliott has won the last two Nationwide races. He and Smith currently reside one-two in the Series points standings.

Furthermore, there is the work being done behind the scenes—most frequently and most forcefully by Kelley Earnhardt Miller.

It is no small feat that the primary sponsor on Elliott's cars is NAPA Auto Parts, a company that became so disgusted with what transpired toward the end of last season with Michael Waltrip Racing that it pulled the plug on the final two years of its contract with MWR's No. 56 car in the Sprint Cup Series and declared at first that it would have to evaluate possibly getting out of NASCAR altogether.

Dale Jr. and his sister talked it into coming back. Yes, NAPA is in for many millions less as a primary sponsor in the Nationwide Series as opposed to Sprint Cup.

"We had to prove to them that we are going to go out and do what we said we could do and be a great representative for them," Earnhardt Miller told ESPN.com.

In the same article, Earnhardt Jr. added: "I recognize -- and I think Chase does, too -- the responsibility that comes with representing a company so significant in the lives of NASCAR fans. We welcome the opportunity and appreciate what NAPA means to this sport."

They've certainly done well so far, and after Elliott's two early wins, NAPA no doubt is digging its association with the young driver and JR Motorsports. It's hardly a stretch to see it ponying up bigger money to invest in Elliott when he makes the leap to Cup.

Jerry Markland/Getty Images
Among the drivers Chase Elliott (right) had to beat to win his first Nationwide race was his JR Motorsports boss (left).

Sure, Rick Hendrick would love to have Elliott eventually drive for him at Hendrick Motorsports. But if Elliott continues on the fast track to Cup, who is Hendrick going to kick to the curb to make room for him?

Kasey Kahne? Doubtful. He has too much potential for Hendrick to give up on him so quickly. Jeff Gordon might retire, but probably not that soon. Jimmie Johnson certainly isn't going anywhere.

That leaves Earnhardt Jr. He's not ready to retire as a driver anytime soon, either.

But as remarkable as it may seem, Junior will turn 40 years old before this season is completed. He's not going to drive forever and even he must consider what his future is going to hold when he no longer wants to get behind the wheel, or does so but at a less competitive level.

So far, this has been Earnhardt's best season as a driver in many years—arguably since 2004, when he won a career-high six races and amassed 16 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes in 36 races while finishing fifth in points. (Yes, he finished a career-high third in points the previous season, but only won two races and had three fewer top-five finishes that year.)

That was the year before he took JR Motorsports from the street stock division at Concord Motorsport Park in North Carolina, where it was more or less his personal hobby, to NASCAR's Nationwide Series, one step below Sprint Cup where it became a business.

This year, Earnhardt already has claimed the season-opening Daytona 500 and has finished in the top three in five of the first eight races, including second-place finishes at Phoenix, Las Vegas and in the last Cup race at Darlington. There is a sense that this might finally be his year.

But again, soon he'll be 40. And next year, he'll have to start over again in a sense because his current crew chief and close friend, Steve Letarte, will be leaving to join the NBC broadcast booth.

Perhaps because of those factors, there also is a sense that it's almost now or never for Earnhardt to finally make a strong run at the title he's never won.

And then what?

Well, that's where Elliott and Smith and JR Motorsports comes in. All in all, JR Motorsports has seemingly never been in better position to strongly consider making the move to Sprint Cup—probably not next season, but certainly perhaps by 2016.

If Hendrick has no spot for Chase Elliott within the next two years, then it's only logical that he would back Elliott as much as necessary in a JR Motorsports Cup car. Hendrick already provides all kinds of technical and monetary support for the company, for which he currently is listed as a co-owner along with Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller.

Hendrick likely would have to bow out as a co-owner if JR Motorsports goes to Cup, but that certainly doesn't mean he and his larger company couldn't be involved on a significant level.

The momentum is swinging hard toward this happening sooner rather than later. And no matter what happens with the rest of this season and beyond for Junior as a driver, that's not likely to change.

Best-case scenario, Junior has another two or three top-notch seasons in him as a driver after this one. As an owner, he could have decades of success awaiting him.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand by the writer.

Joe Menzer has written two books about NASCAR and now writes about it along with college basketball, golf and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.

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