When Dale Earnhardt, Sr. tragically perished in a last lap crash at Daytona 10 years ago, he left a legacy that’s as big as the entire NASCAR nation and is as personal as the career of his favorite son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
What NASCAR has done since in preserving its own legacy is debatable. But what it has done to the legacy of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Is despicable. Who would’ve thought that such a talented driver would not have won a single championship in the 10 years since his father’s death?
The NASCAR community can blame itself for putting Junior on the short end of Victory Lane. But he does have an option that is above and beyond stock-car racing: jump to the IndyCar series. Here are seven reasons why Dale Junior should make that move.
NASCAR made a big deal out of retiring Dale Senior’s iconic number 3 at the time of his devastating accident. As a substitute, we got Kevin Harvick in the number 29. Try as he may, Harvick is no Intimidator. He’s more like an obnoxious second cousin.
Dale Junior should have been given the number 3 immediately, as a signal to the world that he is keeping the Earnhardt legacy alive. Perhaps General Motors threw a wrench into the proceedings that kept Junior away from the number 3. We only know that Junior was robbed of this symbolic but important part of his legacy.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has won two Nationwide Series Championships in 18 Sprint Cup races. But since NASCAR has implemented the Car of Tomorrow, he has finished first in just one event, and that was a fuel mileage victory. What’s worse, Junior has been shut out of the Chase for the championship.
We can safely assume that Junior has not suddenly lost his racing skills. Rather, it’s clear that he’s been saddled with teams that have not mastered the nuances of setting up the Car of Tomorrow to win.
This is an example of the law of unintended consequences at its most ironic. NASCAR creates the Car of Tomorrow to make racing safer after Dale Senior’s death. And it’s creation sabotages Dale Junior’s racing career.
A switch to the Hendrick juggernaut would seem to be the perfect way to give Junior a Car of Tomorrow ride that he can drive to a championship. But no, the Hendrick organization missed on the mojo in putting Junior’s team together.
Here’s what he said about that in a recent Daytona press conference: “I don't know what the reasons were for me and Lance [McGrew] and that group as a whole not working out. I really enjoyed Lance, and I think we're still great friends today, and I think he has a lot of talent. But it just didn't work for whatever reason."
That’s another way of saying neither Junior or the Hendrick organization learned anything from the experience, which brings him back to square one.
The latest Hendrick scheme is to give Earnhardt Jeff Gordon’s crew and crew chief, Steve Latarte, with whom Gordon won exactly one Car of Tomorrow event.
Here is what Junior had to say recently about his new team: “I was joking with somebody in the truck earlier, I was sitting in a seat up in the lounge, and they asked me if that was going to be my seat, and I told them I'm not exactly sure where my seat is yet, it's sort of floating around. That's the way I feel about my team. Everybody is still learning, the guys are still learning who does what, what their personalities are."
Doesn’t sound like a group that’s ready to contend for a Sprint Cup Championship, does it? Clearly Junior needs a mentor that’s going to put him in a more positive frame of mind.
Another example: “I'm sure a lot of people expect nothing more than we did last year. And last year we were kind of out of the radar, which was kind of fun. A lot less garbage to deal with when you're not in the radar."
Is he saying losing is more fun than winning? If so, Junior desperately needs a change of scenery.
IndyCar’s new chief, Randy Bernard, is bringing open wheel racing back from the dead. And he would like nothing better than to have NASCAR’s most popular driver for the last eight years spearheading his series.
Junior would exponentially increase the IndyCar fan base and sponsorship pool. In short, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. could be the savior of open wheel racing in the United States. That’s a more fitting role than laboring as a stock car mid-packer.
IndyCar champions like Sam Hornish, Jr. and Dario Franchitti couldn’t cut it in NASCAR. Going the other way, Dale Junior will be able to eat their lunch and wash it down with a quart of milk after winning the Indy 500.
And with friends like Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi on his side, he would have no trouble getting a top open wheel ride, as well as benefiting from all the positive mentoring he could stand.
All it will take is a year or two in IndyCar for Dale Junior to make his point. NASCAR will be begging him and his millions of fans to return.
Maybe he’ll even get Chad Knaus and the 48 team to play with. They seem to know what they’re doing. And maybe we’ll see the number 3 on one of those Cars of Tomorrow at long last.