Thursday, June 14, 2007

Racer Eight

I am a pretty neutral observer on Dale Earnhardt Jr. Like most NASCAR fans, I always was partial to his charging father- who was one of those guys in sports who got it: a real competitor who appreciated the fans and sport that paid his salary. But I was never fired up for Junior as a racer. Frankly, his step-mother had a valid gripe when she postulated that the younger Dale needed to decide whether he was a champion or a spokesman for Drakkar Noir first.

That being said, it seems to me that if you are both a Junior fan, accordingly want to see him win- well, he is with a team that can most definitely win. Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) just isn't anymore. Frankly, it is an “either or” situation. He could either ride around in twelfth place for another three years at DEI, sulking about his step-mother and muttering about the team’s decline- or move to a team that definitely could win. And if his "fans" grousing about "being teammates with Gordon" was the major downside... well, please. Yeah, Jeff Gordon is a phony- we all know that- but it isn’t like Dale has to marry the guy. Or even share haulers.

One of the best reasons for this switch is that sometimes a change of scenery is good for people. Whatever dynamic that existed at DEI just wasn't working too well anymore. It wasn't terrible: there is nothing inherently "bad" about being a key participant in one of the top ten-fifteen individual stock car teams in the entire USA.

But these super multi-car teams that dominate NASCAR now made huge investments in engineering, technology and talent development. Hendricks is a totally bigger and tech savvy organization than it was a decade ago with the Rainbow Warriors. Compare that to Dale Jr.’s existing organization. DEI is still largely a collection of Earnhardt family members- particularly in the decision-making roles. Along similar lines, does anyone think it helps matters that his sister is his agent? I mean, if that is not a graduate PhD psychology experiment waiting to happen- then what is?

Talent selection was based on relationships. Martin Truex was there largely because he was Dale’s pal. Michael Waltrip drove the second car there for a long time. I am not sure it is a real smart move to run your second car with a second tier veteran rather than trying to develope a real grade one talent. But again, Waltrip was “family”- and evaluated on a different curve. Also, DEI was a strong team; it really was. But Dale Jr insisted on this clubhouse atmosphere- and bears a goodly share of the responsibility for the team’s decline. Yes, it was cute when family ties made Dale Jr. and his pals the guys who cut the grass at the shop. It isn't so cute when the exact same lawn mowing team is still in charge of building the cars and executing the racing organization.

The pressure is on Dale squarely now. Put up or shut up time for him. Hendrick wins. The team wins with different people, different crew-chiefs, different tracks, different teams and different cars. They win and win and win. If #8 can't win here, it means he probably is- outside of restrictor plate racing- a whole lot closer the past couple of years to Dave Blaney and Bobby Hamilton Jr. than a lot of his fans will want to admit. Maybe his fans need to swallow their pride and anger toward Hendrick's team- and realize they lost this battle with Gordon, etc.- but now could win a Championship. Isn't that why you are a fan of the guy- or is it to justify tossing beer and stuff at Gordon?

Labels: , , ,