Rick Hendrick (left) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. announce that Earnhardt will drive for Hendrick Motorsports beginning in 2008.
Rivals Turn Teammates
Fans who cheer lustily at Jeff Gordon’s misfortune and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s good fortune are still trying to figure how the winds of fortune ever blew up the storm that hit NASCAR in June.
That’s when Earnhardt Jr. announced he would join Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, thus becoming a teammate of Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears. For owner Rick Hendrick, the addition of NASCAR’s most marketable driver moves him a step closer to forming a super team.
“I can’t tell you how much pressure I feel,” Hendrick said. “The pressure is because I want to deliver, and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen, because there’s going to be a lot of people watching. It’s an awful special day for me professionally and personally. I’ve known Junior since he was a puppy.”
For Junior, it’s a move that puts him in line for his first-ever Cup championship.
“It became apparent to me the man I wanted to drive for,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “He competes with integrity, and most importantly, he wins races.”
Since Earnhardt Jr. announced he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. in May, speculation as to where he would wind up was rampant. Hendrick appeared to pull himself out of the sweepstakes, saying at one point his “stable was full.”
It was – until Kyle Busch was informed in mid-June that his contract would not be renewed for 2008, thus opening the door for Little E.
While Earnhardt Jr. has yet to claim a title in NASCAR’s premiere series, Hendrick Motorsports owns six championships and has taken 10 checkered flags in 14 starts this year.
Gordon, winner of four crowns, leads the 2007 points standings and recently passed Dale Earnhardt Sr. for most Cup career wins. While fans have pegged Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. as mortal enemies, Junior doesn’t see it that way.
“We do have a personal competition. If you want to call it a rivalry, fine,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “He’s fun to race with, and especially if you beat him.”
Been There Myself
Kurt Busch evaluates NASCAR’s heavy-handed punishments
Kurt Busch knows all about controversy.
Here is a guy whose was arrested for reckless driving in Arizona, prompting then car owner Jack Roush to park him for the final two races of the 2005 season.
Of course, the fact that Busch had already announced his intention to leave Roush for Roger Penske’s camp made the suspension a bit disingenuous.
He’s been black-flagged for rough driving, fined and placed on probation. Who better to question the stiff fines and suspensions NASCAR has handed down in 2007, most recently to the 24 and 48 teams?
“They were pushing the envelope too far,” Busch says, “and that’s where NASCAR’s going to lay down the big hammer and say, ‘Listen, guys, we want everybody to stay in the box, and we want the most even playing field we can have. Whether you’re the points leader or you’re the guy that barely made it in on time, everybody needs to have the same opportunity to win a race.'”
In terms of fines and crew chief suspensions – a whopping six races for Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus – NASCAR has indeed dropped a heavy hammer.
But drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were still on the track – and probably still getting coached. Busch suggests that even with the crew chiefs banned from the track, they can’t be prevented from doing a large part of their jobs.
“You hope you have the depth behind the crew chief, as far as somebody to step up onto the box and make those calls out on Sunday,” Busch says. “But as far as everyday operation, it seems as if the team pulls together stronger. And teams are so well equipped these days with people behind the scenes that things don’t miss a beat at all through the week.”