Commentary

How will Earnhardt stack up in 2008? Stay tuned

It's obvious Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be driving under a magnifying glass in 2008. After all, everyone wants to know how Junior will compare to Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, DEI and his famous Hendrick teammates, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: February 12, 2008, 12:20 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent his entire career enduring endless comparisons to his legendary father.

The impossibility of living up to those expectations should make the numerous 2008 comparisons easy to bear, and plenty of comparisons are coming:

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Busch
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonDale Earnhardt Jr. will be compared to Kyle Busch -- the driver he replaced at Hendrick Motorsports.

Earnhardt vs. Kyle Busch, Earnhardt vs. Dale Earnhardt Inc., Earnhardt vs. Kasey Kahne in the Budweiser car, and Earnhardt vs. his Hendrick Motorsports teammates.

Some NASCAR fans will chart these out week to week to see who is getting the better end of the deal that brought Earnhardt to Hendrick Motorsports and which team made the best trade.

Earnhardt-Busch is the one most people will watch closely. Earnhardt replaced Busch at Hendrick Motorsports and Busch moved over to the No. 18 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Advantage: Earnhardt. Busch has loads of talent, but the No. 18 team hasn't been competitive for three years and hasn't won a race for four years -- two with Bobby Labonte and two with J.J. Yeley.

Then we have Earnhardt vs. DEI. Martin Truex Jr. made the Chase last year for DEI and Earnhardt didn't. If that happens this year, people will say DEI picked the right driver to stick around.

Advantage: Earnhardt. Truex might make the Chase again, but DEI's equipment and personnel are a notch below Hendrick's. Unless Truex is a much better driver than Earnhardt, he can't overcome that disadvantage.

No one else in DEI's stable has a chance to outdrive Earnhardt. Regan Smith and Paul Menard still are learning how to race at the Cup level.

Mark Martin could make a run at it if he were racing full time in Earnhardt's old No. 8, but he's only racing a partial schedule. However, it will be interesting to watch how Martin and Earnhardt fare against each other in the races Martin runs.

And what about Budweiser? The company had been on Earnhardt's car since he started his Cup career in 1999, forming one of the most successful sponsor-athlete relationships in sports.

But Earnhardt and his advisors decided to make a clean break in the move to Hendrick, so he could market himself to a wider audience, including children.

Anheuser-Busch selected Kasey Kahne to take over as its Cup driver, which took some people by surprise. Kahne is a young, handsome guy, but he is as quiet and colorless as they come. Throwing down a few cold ones with the guys doesn't seem like his style.

Advantage: Earnhardt. As bad as Earnhardt's season was last year, Kahne's was worse. Kahne finished 19th in the standings, three spots below Earnhardt, and had seven fewer top-5s.

But we can't leave out Earnhardt's biggest challenge -- how he ranks with teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears.

Advantage: Earnhardt's Hendrick teammates. Well, two of them, anyway. Johnson is going for his third consecutive Cup title. Gordon is hoping to get his fifth. They were the two best drivers last season.

Both of them have embraced Earnhardt as a teammate, but don't be fooled. They aren't going to hand over the keys to the kingdom to the new guy.

Cup runneth over
The hierarchy of open-wheel racing may finally come to its senses and merge into one league after 12 years of destroying themselves.

An IRL-Champ Car merger is closer than it's ever been, but Sprint Cup is filled with drivers, engineers, engine builders and crew members who were in IndyCar racing and aren't going back.

And the so-called open-wheel invasion didn't start with Juan Pablo Montoya last year. The exodus started much earlier.

Jeff Gordon wanted to race Indy cars before CART officials ignored him when his family didn't have any money to bring to the table. Tony Stewart won an IRL title before deciding NASCAR was a better option.

Casey Mears wanted to follow his uncle Rick to IndyCar fame and fortune, but soon realized NASCAR was the place to be. The same was true for J.J. Yeley, who finished ninth in the 1998 Indy 500.

This year's rookie foursome -- Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier, along with 2007 rookie A.J. Allmendinger -- make it at least 10 Cup drivers who probably would have stayed in open-wheel if the split never happened.

No full-time ride for Leicht
Stephen Leicht finished seventh in the Nationwide Series standings last year, winning a race and posting seven top-10s. He ranked third among the Busch-only competitors.

But Leicht, 21, doesn't have a full-time ride this season in the feeder series.

Meanwhile, Cup regular Carl Edwards will return to defend his Nationwide title. Clint Bowyer, who finished third in the Chase last year, also will run the entire Nationwide schedule.

Where is the justice?

Richard Childress, who signed Leicht to a part-time Nationwide deal, said Leicht could have a full-time ride in the future if NASCAR changes the rules and doesn't allow Cup drivers to race for the Nationwide title.

This situation is a clear example why that needs to happen.

And the winner is ...
Last month, Talladega Superspeedway was named the Large Business of the Year by the Greater Talladega Chamber of Commerce.

Well deserved, no doubt. But isn't that a little like naming Lambeau Field the best NFL stadium in Green Bay?

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter