Junior's future in his own hands, drivers say
Speculation mounts on the heels of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s announcement that he is leaving the company his late father started. Drivers offer mixed reactions, writes Mark Ashenfelter.
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Two drivers who could be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s teammates next year say they could see him fitting in at Richard Childress Racing. A teammate who won't be one by season's end, meanwhile, said Dale Earnhardt Inc. will continue on without the driver.
Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, along with Kevin Harvick, drive for RCR, the team many consider the favorite to land Earnhardt's services in 2008. Earnhardt said he'll take some time to make his decision, but that didn't stop the media at Darlington Raceway from asking nearly anyone in a driver's uniform his thoughts on Earnhardt's Thursday announcement that he'd be leaving DEI at season's end.
On Thursday, Burton said he wasn't sure Childress even wants a fourth team, but if he does, he thought Earnhardt would make a fine teammate. He reiterated those comments on Friday as Cup teams prepare for Saturday night's Dodge Avenger 500.
"Any teammate that I look at, the thing that I want is a person that understands the common good of the company is in his best interest," Burton said. "We have to have teammates that are very competitive but that also understand that the mission is, for us collectively, to do it better than everyone else. We have to have each other's interests at heart, we have to have talent.
"There are a lot of qualities that make a good teammate, [including] honesty. We don't have time not to be honest. If Clint Bowyer is mad at me, he has free reign to come to me and say, 'Hey, you [ticked] me off and here's why.' And we can talk about it. You've got to have that kind of relationship. In any teammate that's the things that we will demand and expect. When I don't live up to those, then I've done wrong.
"I'm not going to go into the good things that Dale would bring if he was a teammate, but those are the things that we would expect of anyone. From the outside looking in, there's very few people in the garage that I believe couldn't bring that."
Burton didn't want to throw himself into the fray too much; he made it clear he'd be fine with Earnhardt coming aboard if the circumstances are right.
"It would be nice to have Junior as a teammate, it would also be nice to have Mark Martin as a teammate again," Burton said. "It would be nice to have a lot of people in the garage as a teammate and I understand that the way things work, when someone says, 'I'm going somewhere else,' and, 'We've got to know right now where he's going,' I think you guys are jumping the gun just a little bit on where he's going to end up. There's a lot of time between here and then, and we'll see what ends up happening.
"If he does come and that does work out, then we would be excited about it for sure. But there are a lot of things that have to go on between now and then. Richard [Childress] has got to get committed to a fourth team and we're not there yet. I know everybody says that we are definitely doing a fourth team. That's not true. There's talk of doing a fourth team but we're not to the point of saying we're doing a fourth team. So that has to happen first."
Bowyer said he thinks any driver would be lucky to have Earnhardt as a teammate for all the obvious reasons.
"He brings so much to the table sponsorwise, fanwise and everything else, so I am sure wherever he lands it will be good for them and him both."
On Wednesday, there was speculation that Martin Truex Jr. would also be leaving DEI at the end of this season, but his contract runs through 2008. At this point, he says he'll be at DEI next year and plans on being successful.
He doesn't envision the organization collapsing without Earnhardt and doesn't envision a situation in which employees will abandon ship en masse, pulling his team down at the same time.
"I'm driving the No. 1 car for the rest of this year and on through next year," Truex Jr. said Friday. "Junior leaving doesn't really change a thing for me. I'm still driving the No. 1 car. I'm real happy with Bono [crew chief Kevin Manion], my team and [sponsor] Bass Pro Shops and everything that's going on [at DEI]. I look forward to the rest of the year and next year."
Depending on Earnhardt's replacement, assuming DEI remains a three-car team, Truex Jr. could be the team's lead driver next year. He said he's fine with that and thinks his first Cup win is close at hand.
"We've ran well each week and we feel like we're getting better every week," he said. "We're just going to try to continue that. We just can't change what we do just because Junior leaves. Yes, he's a teammate, a great teammate. He's a huge part of what DEI is and has become, but now he's gone and we have to go about our business.
"We're here to do our job no matter who our teammate is. He's not driving my race car, I am. I'm just going to keep doing what I know how to do. It's sad. I hate to see him go. He's been a great teammate to learn things from but we'll figure it out."
Matt Kenseth said he's proud of his friend for having the courage to make a move that some might construe as being disloyal to the organization built by Dale Earnhardt Sr. and run by his widow Teresa, Dale Jr.'s stepmother, since his death in 2001.
"I think if his dad was still alive and he couldn't provide him with the stuff that he thought he needed to win a championship, he'd do the same thing and I think his dad would give him his blessing," Kenseth said. "Dale Jr. is Dale Jr. He's really talented. He's really good. He's got a big name, so you know that he's always gonna be able to get a ride, but he's 32 or 33 years old and it's time for him.
"If he doesn't feel like he's in the best equipment, he needs to go find the best equipment and go out there and try to win championships and do those things. He's close to my age and we're not old by any means, but yet in this sport today, he's 10 years older than the youngest guys. It's time and I think it's a good decision. I think it's time to go see if there's better stuff out there and a better opportunity to win one."
The move didn't surprise Kenseth, who actually thought the change was going to happen a few years ago.
"The last time they did a three-year deal, two and a half years ago, I was honestly surprised. I really thought he maybe would have tried something else, but I know he's put 100 percent into making it work there," Kenseth said. "He's got a lot of family and friends there that work on the team. He's given it everything he's got and he's raced there for 10 or 11 years or whatever it is and has done a lot of great things there.
"I think it's cool that if he wants to go do something different he does it, and he doesn't stay there if he's not happy doing it."
The question now is how Earnhardt will fare over the rest of the season. Officially a "lame duck" at DEI, the team could either rally to show him what he'll be missing in the future, or the organization could fragment.
Burton knows all eyes will be on Junior the rest of the season, even after he makes his decision regarding '08 known.
"It's their responsibility as competitors to stay focused on the job at hand. I think that they'll do that," Burton said. "I think they'll put effort into doing that at the very least. Whether they're successful at it or not is another story. It will be difficult to do.
"That team is under the microscope every week more so than all the other teams. Which in some way has prepared them for this and in some ways it makes this easier because they're used to the exposure and used to the attention. But it will be difficult for everyone to stay in line.
"Whenever a driver raises his hand and says, 'Hey, I want to go somewhere else because I don't think I can have success here,' then what he has said is that we're not doing the things that are correct. Then it's also hard to turn around and look the guys in the eyes and say, 'Hey, you guys are doing a great job and everything is going to be really good.' It's hard to do both. [But] I think that that team will put a lot of effort in."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.