Junior's Next Mission- The Resurrection of DEI?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a NASCAR fan phenomenon. He's the sport's most popular driver for the last ten years. He's a 15 year veteran at the Sprint Cup level and he drives for a team with over 200 race victories and countless series championships. His teammates include a five time former champion, a four time former champion, and a 16-time race winner. He signed a contract extension back in 2011 that will keep him at Hendrick Motorsports through the 2017 season. So the chances of Earnhardt moving are virtually non-existent. Even considering the possibilities is silly season speculation of the very highest order. There is also no garage chatter or swirling rumors that indicate Earnhardt will be driving anything but the #88 Hendrick Chevrolet for the next four plus years.
At some point, both Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have to ask themselves what they're missing. In nearly six years he's spent with the NASCAR colossus, Earnhardt has won exactly two races. He's made the Chase three times there- and finished dead Chase last (12th) in two of them. The other two seasons landed him in the twenties. He's changed crew chiefs (from Tony Eury Jr. to Lance McGrew to Steve Letarte). He changed his garage (from sharing a home with the #5 team to sharing space with Jimmie Johnson's #48 team). The results still are not there.
What has to be more frustrating for all involved is that none of this makes any sense. While his critics say he's never had the talent to match the hype, Earnhardt can race. You don't win two Busch series championships and 19 Sprint Cup races while leading over 7,000 career laps on pure luck or hype. Meanwhile, Hendrick's equipment is universally accepted to be at or above any other equipment runnin in NASCAR today. That's why multiple teams get their engines and/or their chassis from Hendrick and seats with that equipment are in high demand.
Speculating on why the pairing hasn't worked is mostly a pointless exercise. If it's not the driver and it's not the equipment then there isn't any one thing that's causing the problem. Maybe the corporate environment of Hendrick has stifled Earnhardt's personality. Maybe the 2004 Corvette crash sapped his will to race on that razor's edge that separates the average driver from the exceptional. Maybe he's become too “nice” for NASCAR's, “Have at it, boys,” era. Maybe the expectations of running at Hendrick are more than Earnhardt expected and can handle.
None of those make much more sense than the results themselves. The “corporate” environment of Hendrick hasn't prevented Johnson, Gordon, or a host of other drivers from achieving enormous success. The Corvette crash happened in July during the most successful season Earnhardt ever had, where he won six races and was in championship contention right up until the checkered flag flew at Homestead. While he races with more respect and gives more room than his father ever dreamed of, giving your competition some space on the track hasn't kept Mark Martin from a hall of fame career. And while the expectations were high, they weren't any higher than those Earnhardt had for himself or higher than what his fans had of him while still driving the #8 Chevrolet.
One possibility is out there. The possibility that leaving the company that his father built for him turned out to be a bigger deal than he thought it would be. Dale Earnhardt Sr. built Dale Earnhardt Incorporated so that Junior would have a competitive Sprint (then Winston) Cup ride. Senior didn't need a fast car; he already had one running the #3 for Richard Childress Racing. He didn't need the money; after seven championships and countless endorsement and merchandising deals, Earnhardt the Father had enough money to live on for generations. What he didn't have was something to pass on to his children. DEI was that something. When Dale Jr. showed promise at the racing game, Senior began the process of taking a team that built cars for him to run in the occasional Busch race and making it into a real race team. That process was complete in February of 2001 when the three cars of Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip, and Steve Park started the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt senior's death in that race by definition changed what Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI) was. The steady expansion ended and the real competition for a championship began. The three race teams all ran full-time, fully-sponsored schedules at the Sprint Cup level. Owing to senior's extensive restrictor-plate success, DEI was a powerhouse at Daytona and Talladega. His widow, Teresa Earnhardt, remained the business acumen behind the racers and the company thrived. All three won races and with Junior as the face of a franchise, the future was bright.
Dale Jr. Wins the 2001 Pepsi 400 At Daytona- A Great Moment
Yet mixing business with family is always a bad idea, doubly so when the family in question is your in laws or step family. This was true for Teresa and Dale Jr. as well. They clashed over resources- the typical issue of the drivers wanting to spend to find speed while management wants to spend the absolute minimum required so that profit is maximized. The fact that Dale knew why the company was built in the first place didn't help matters, nor did Teresa's relative distance from the on-track product. A difficult relationship became an impossible one when Junior essentially asked for control of the team to remain with DEI.
Leaving DEI had to be one of the hardest things that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has ever done. DEI was where he grew up as a racer, first in the Busch series and later in the Winston Cup. DEI was where he won his first race. DEI was where he shared the racetrack and later victory lane with a father that passed too soon. Heck, the organization has his very name; Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. While moving to Hendrick may have guaranteed his future it was not DEI and never would be.
Time heals all wounds and hates, including the one between Junior and Teresa Earnhardt that prevented a deal in 2007. In 2010, they worked together to put him in a Wrangler-sponsored #3 for a Nationwide race at Daytona- a race Junior won. While I'm sure they aren't best friends, the virulent hatred seems to be gone (at least publicly). Teresa also never was that interested in being a race team owner. She didn't come to the races, didn't participate actively in discussions with NASCAR about on-track issues. Her specialty was business and marketing, in particularly the business of Dale Earnhardt and his legacy. With the absorption by Chip Ganassi's team, there is no more on-track DEI product.
The makings of a deal are there. Junior has shown little interest in the licensing and merchandising aspects of his own fame much less that of his father. Let Teresa keep the rights to the #3 and everything associated with it. The only thing Junior needs are the trophies in the DEI shop and he helped earn a number of them. Once called the “Garage Mahjal,”, the DEI headquarters is now a showpiece of what once was.
He may not be ready for it now but I and many other race fans would love to see the name Dale Earnhardt Incorporated on a race track once more. Is it possible for Junior to ever return? Contracts and common sense say no. But it makes for an interesting thought, particularly with Earnhardt slipping in the standings and potentially watching another season slip away.