Junior makes winning move no matter results

Originally Published: February 18, 2005
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Junior
Earnhardt
When he looks back on it, whether that occurs in December or as soon as, say, the last few laps of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. may well come to the conclusion that he has made the mistake of his professional career.

But that's a maybe. And in the meantime, there is this: Earnhardt goes in the books as having made the coolest decision on the block.

To put it succinctly, Earnhardt came out of the most successful season of his life as a driver and promptly tore up the blueprint. He took his best cars and his crew chief and traded them straight up to Michael Waltrip, another member of the DEI team, for what Waltrip had.

Alas, what Waltrip had in 2004 wasn't much, or at least so the results would suggest -- zero wins and an overall finish outside the top 20. Compare that with Earnhardt's haul -- six victories, Daytona memorably among them, and a fifth-place final standing that wasn't far removed from being a battle for the Nextel Cup championship -- and you have the makings of a robust discussion of Junior's mental state.

But that's just the thing: Earnhardt may well be doing all of this for his mental health, to say nothing of salvaging a relationship within his own family. And those two reasons alone ought to be enough to make just about anybody hope that this huge gamble pays off.

Credit Earnhardt with seeing that things were going irrevocably bad. His relationship with car chief Tony Eury Jr. last season was more combustible than the mix that was being pumped into the No. 8 car on race days. The two butted heads so often you wondered why they didn't just keep their helmets on 24 hours a day.

Worse news: Eury is Earnhardt's first cousin.

It was lousy going on hideous going on "Family Feud," two guys who were experiencing success without being able to enjoy much of it. To hear Earnhardt tell it, a fierce competitiveness that undergirds their entire relationship was rising to the point that it dominated Eury and Earnhardt even in winning times.

"The two of us kind of held each other up," is how Junior put it at one point.

Professionally, that's a hard case to prove, although Earnhardt has maintained that each man -- car chief and driver -- probably was less than he could have been had there been easier, more static-free communication. But personally, the family was getting torn up, and both Earnhardt and Eury knew it.

Result: A very mutual decision that may yet rock the racing world, either because it turns out to be a brilliant stroke or because it hammers apart a winning team. Either way, there's no denying the guts involved.

Let's not get too crazy embracing the virtue of the decision here. It may well be, first of all, that Eury wanted out even before Earnhardt arrived at the same conclusion. For that matter, some of Earnhardt's comments suggest that he thinks he isn't the only one who has some personal growth to catch up on. ("He's going to have to understand how to motivate people," he said of Eury Jr. recently. "He's going to have to learn now or never.")

But there is also here an element of willingness -- to change, that is -- that exists almost nowhere else in the realm of high-stakes, multimillion-dollar professional sports. The safest thing to do in any winning situation is to grab tight and hold on for as long as the ride lasts before they throw you off. Dale Earnhardt Jr. went sharply the other way, trading a victory-producing crew and cars for stuff that hasn't been winning -- and then, for measure, bringing in a rookie crew chief, Pete Rondeau, to try to make it all work for the No. 8 team.

There is also here an element of willingness -- to change, that is -- that exists almost nowhere else in the realm of high-stakes, multimillion-dollar professional sports. The safest thing to do in any winning situation is to grab tight and hold on for as long as the ride lasts before they throw you off. Dale Earnhardt Jr. went sharply the other way.

That's remarkably gutsy. Also, quite possibly insane. Earnhardt is willing to live with the results, even if at some point he is required to admit he made the wrong move. There just aren't a lot of the people you see on "SportsCenter" every day who would even consider taking such a risk.

There have been no results to speak of so far, yet the Earnhardt on display in Florida this month has appeared mostly loose and comfortable with his decision. He is happy with Rondeau, at least right now. He seems peaceful in the absence of his constant bickering with Eury Jr.

He also appeared for most of Speedweeks as virtually no threat to repeat his Daytona performance of a year ago, and Earnhardt knew that much going in. He knew he no longer had the fastest car, or even one of the fastest (he still doesn't). He knew that he had walked away from a winning team and into a wholly uncertain season.

However, he and Waltrip did prove in Thursday's Gatorade 150 qualifier that DEI will remain a team to watch in the 500. Waltrip and Junior went 1-2 in the 150-mile preview of Sunday's main event.

And maybe Earnhardt simply believes he is good enough as a driver to overcome the displacement he has brought on himself. Maybe he and Eury were just so unhappy that even winning wasn't worth it. Perhaps, after the proving ground of 2004, Earnhardt feels he has capably handled his father's enormous legacy and doesn't have to apologize for trying to find higher ground in his whole life, as opposed to simply his racing career.

Maybe. Could be. What we know for sure is that one of 2004's best teams was put asunder in one of the all-time voluntary blowups -- the old if-it-ain't broke, break-it approach to getting things done. Dale Earnhardt Jr. revisits Daytona, and just about nothing feels the same. Which, clearly, is exactly how he wanted it. And that makes it, if nothing else, the most interesting decision of his professional life.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at mkreidler@sacbee.com

ALSO SEE