At a Wednesday press conference, Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the world who he'll drive for in 2008... and the news turned Earnhardt Nation on its head.
NASCAR Hall-of-Famer Winston Kelly introduced Junior, who seemed much more upbeat than when he announced his departure from Dale Earnhardt, Inc.—his late father's company—just weeks ago.
Junior made a brief statement before introducing his new boss Rick Hendrick—owner of Hendrick Motorsports, the team that employs Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and has 159 Nextel Series victories to its credit.
Earnhardt Nation must be crying in its beer. How could Junior drive for the same team as Gordon—the man they love to hate?
Beyond the emotional response, actually, the answer is obvious.
First, there's the success factor. Hendrick has six titles since 1995. Hendrick drivers have won 10 of 14 races this season, including four each for Gordon and Johnson. Three of the four Hendrick cars are in the top-12 in points, making them eligible for the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
What's more, the relationship between Hendrick and the Earnhardt family goes back to the early 1980s, when Dale Earnhardt Sr. gave Rick Hendrick his first win as a Busch Series owner.
Hendrick has been around for Junior's whole life.
As for the Gordon "rivalry"—Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. had a very good off-track relationship, both personally and in professional ventures like Chase Authentics Memorabilia.
Jeff and Junior? They've been close friends for years.
"I think the fans will make up their own minds," Junior said when asked about the potential reaction to his move. "I like to outrun Jeff, he's one of the best in our sport, and it's a good feeling to outrun him. I think you can have that kind of rivalry in Rick's organization and still have that respect. I think that's kind of healthy."
Earnhardt then threw a slight jab at Gordon, saying that, with the two drivers in equivalent machines, "(Jeff) can't make any excuses."
Rick Hendrick now has the winningest active NASCAR driver (Gordon), the most successful driver in the past few years (Johnson), and the series' most popular driver (Earnhardt) in three of his four cars. Casey Mears signed on with the team near the end of last season, and has rebounded from a tough start in 2007 to earn a win at Charlotte and a fourth-place finish at Pocono.
Hendrick's Kyle Busch seems to be the odd man out in the equation, and a number of teams have tried to lure the 22-year-old up-and-comer. Busch has a victory (Bristol), three top-fives, and seven top-tens to his credit this year—and is currently 10th in points.
Busch may end up in the fourth car Richard Childress Racing intends to add next year, but my money is on his landing with Ginn Motorsports. The fledgling outfit has exceded expectations by keeping Mark Martin in Chase contention, and Ginn drivers Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek would be able mentors for any young driver.
Ginn also gets tremendous technical support from Hendrick, which means Busch would effectively be moving to a farm team of sorts.
In any event, the biggest question in the 2007 "Silly Season" has been answered. A number of drivers are expected to swap rides next year—but none of them will make the kind of splash that Earnhardt did on Wednesday.
How will it all turn out? We'll just have to wait for 2008 and, as the Beatles said, "see how they run..."
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