Commentary

Some driver moves pay off, some clearly do not

Richard Petty driving for Mike Curb, Darrell Waltrip going to Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt moving to Richard Childress Racing were three very different moves. And they go to show that sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, writes Ryan McGee.

Updated: July 9, 2008, 6:32 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Tony Stewart's decision to bolt Joe Gibbs Racing to become a driver-owner isn't merely the biggest Silly Season move of 2008; it's one of the biggest career shifts in NASCAR history. But it's way too early to tell whether it will go down as brilliant or a bust. Only after Smoke gets a couple of years under his belt will we know whether it was worth all the trouble.

Five years from now, will we be hailing the greatness of Stewart Haas Racing as it competes alongside Hendrick, Roush Fenway, RCR and, yes, JGR? Or will we be writing stories about Stewart's tarnished legacy ending in bankruptcy? Or perhaps we won't be writing anything because Stewart Haas will be as irrelevant as Haas-CNC is today.

So until we have a chance to fairly look back on Stewart's new task, let's take a look back at those who jumped off the plank before him, a banzai lap of the five boldest career moves in NASCAR history.

5. Kurt Busch Bolts -- 2005
When Kurt Busch announced midseason that he was leaving Roush Racing for Penske Racing, it was significant for two reasons. No. 1, he was the defending Cup Series champion, the first to make a break for a new team while still sitting atop the NASCAR throne. No. 2, he still had a year remaining on his contract with Roush, which meant he was announcing a career move that wasn't going to happen for another year and half.

That essentially hung the future over his then-boss' head (not to mention those of his crew), leveraging pressure to get out of the final year of his deal. And guess what? It worked. It also allowed Jamie McMurray to apply the same tactic to wriggle out of the last year of his employment at Chip Ganassi Racing to essentially replace Busch at Roush.

"That was the summer that the way the garage does business completely changed," team owner Richard Childress says. "Now, good or bad, that kind of practice seems to have become standard operating procedure."

And it's the very practice Stewart employed when he announced his intentions to leave Gibbs at the end of 2009 … when he actually wanted to leave at the end of '08.

Rearview Mirror: Yikes!: Busch's career never has returned to where it was at Roush, while McMurray's stint with Roush has been a career-crusher.

4. The King Gets Curbed -- 1983
Facing financial difficulties and still smarting from the departure of cousin/crew chief Dale Inman, Richard Petty did the unthinkable at the end of the '83 season, leaving the family fold of Petty Enterprises and taking his famous No. 43 STP ride over to drive for record executive Mike Curb.

Lost in the craziness of the mind-bending move was the deal that almost happened but didn't. Car owner Rick Hendrick nearly had a deal put together that would have had The King driving for his still-new team, but it fell apart at the last minute.

Petty won two races and earned 26 top-10s in two seasons with Curb, including his milestone 200th career victory, then went back to Randleman, N.C., to his still-struggling family operation, which has won only three races since 1983.

Rearview Mirror: Strong start, fade to black: Petty's two wins with Curb were the last of his career, and after The King left, Curb eased into life as a Busch Series owner. But wow … what if Petty and Hendrick had hooked up?

3. DW's Junior Achievement -- 1987
The six-year run enjoyed by Darrell Waltrip and Junior Johnson from 1981 to 1986 was arguably the greatest streak of success in NASCAR's modern era. The driver from Owensboro and the owner from Wilkesboro combined to win three championships and 43 races, and finished first or second in points five out of six seasons (they finished fifth in '84).

But the tension between the two living legends grew steadily over the years, fueled by feuds over salaries and personnel moves, and eventually pushed over the top when Johnson expanded to two cars, bringing on teammate Neil Bonnett in '84.

So when Hendrick came calling in '86, Waltrip pounced at the chance to drive for what he saw as a team of the future, proclaiming: "I'm getting off a mule and getting onto a thoroughbred."

Hendrick rewarded DW with a "dream team" of a support staff, including mechanical guru Waddell Wilson.

Rearview Mirror: A little sizzle, but mostly fizzle: The dream team turned into a nightmare as egos and philosophies clashed like a demolition derby. Waltrip won the '89 Daytona 500 but never seriously contended for a championship. In '91, he left Hendrick to become a driver-owner. Both Johnson and Waltrip now openly admit they should have stayed together.

2. RC Calls Shotgun -- 1981
After a lifetime behind the wheel, Richard Childress found himself faced with a daunting decision in the summer of 1981. His hunting buddy Dale Earnhardt, less than one year removed from winning his first Cup championship, was out of a ride. The two self-made men sat in a hotel room in Talladega to talk about Dale's predicament, and Childress eventually agreed to get out of the cockpit temporarily to let Earnhardt drive and get back on his feet.

RC never raced another lap.

The two men laid the groundwork that year for what would become the greatest dynasty in stock car racing history. After two years apart (Ricky Rudd drove the 3 car, winning two races), the two rejoined in '84 and commenced to beating the hell out of everyone on the track for the next decade.

Rearview Mirror: Ding! Ding! Ding!: Dale and RC won 67 races, six Cups and a googabazillion dollars together. What more do you want?

1. Junior Joins The Superfriends -- 2008
Yes, we know, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won only one points-paying Cup race since joining Hendrick Motorsports at the start of the '08 season. And yes, we know Junior has yet to win a Cup championship … blah, blah, blah.

But when it comes to massively hyped, sport-changing, NASCAR career moves, none can touch the all-consuming colossus that has been Junior to Hendrick. It has shifted the balance of merchandise sales, sponsorship trends, driver salaries and even television ratings. Earnhardt's leaving DEI -- his only employer at the time, his family business, and, oh yeah, the only company with his name on the door -- deserves to be included on this list if for no other reason than the gut-wrenching process that surrounded it.

As for that lack of a championship -- check back in November. He is second in points, after all. Just the mere fact that he is once again relevant in the title talk makes the move worth it.

And the cajones that it took to make the move has no doubt emboldened guys like Stewart to make monumental moves of their own.

Now comes the fun part -- sitting back and seeing whether it all pays off.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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