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The Microscope Will Be On Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick
By Kim Roberson
Happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there. I hope everyone is having a wonderful day, either spoiling their dad, or if you are a dad, being spoiled by your family.
Another week, another road trip, another close call with racing. Sometimes I wonder why I really don’t pay more attention to my schedule. I flew to Wausau, Wisconsin on Wednesday…if I had left a day earlier I could have gone to Milwaukee to watch the Cup cars test at the Milwaukee Mile. One the way back, I flew through Detroit…if I had been thinking I would have caught an earlier flight and spent the day at the track before flying home for Fathers Day. Oh well. I’ll try to pay more attention from now on.
It certainly has been an interesting week. The Junior Lottery is over, and now the Kyle Lottery has begun.
While I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Junior was going to Hendrick Motorsports next year, what really surprised me was that Kyle Bush was the one given the door to make it happen.
Although, if you look at Kyle’s performance, both on and off the track this year, maybe it isn’t so surprising. Kyle has made his brother look nearly like a saint -- for some of the moves he has pulled both on and off the track in recent weeks. I know he is only 22 years old, however, he is a paid professional, driving for the top team in NASCAR, and as such, he needs to remember that opening his mouth and speaking before he thinks, isn’t always the best route.
Nor is running fellow drivers over in order to try and get to the finish line first. When your own teammates spotters actually tell their drivers that “Kyle is coming up behind you” to warn them that they need to be wary…something is wrong.
Having spent the last 3 years working side by side with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, you’d have thought some of their attitude and professionalism might have rubbed off.
I guess not.
After his temper tantrum at Texas, it seems Rick Hendrick had enough. The availability of Dale Junior to not only hop into the car for a few laps after his young driver stormed out of the track wasn’t only a help to gain the team 3 extra points, it seemed to be a test to see how well Junior might work out with his team.
It was a good fit, and now, it will be a permanent fit.
Kyle says he was kind of surprised by the announcement, that he was the odd man out, but not really shocked. "Do I feel I got pushed out? No, for the way negotiations (with HMS about renewing his contract) were going -- wasn't going well, then it was, then it wasn't again -- I think I could do better somewhere else. That's the way we felt," he said.
What did make me chuckle on Wednesday as I watched the press conference on my laptop while sitting in the Detroit airport was the thought that every Junior fan who has also been a Gordon hater has quite a quandary in their future; stick with Junior and support him in his new ride…or let their hatred of Gordon get the better of them and force them to abandon their favorite driver just because of who his teammate will be.
I can see Dale Sr. sitting and laughing at the situation.
Another big issue appears to be what number Junior will drive: the 5 or the 8.
"Regardless if we do or we don't, it would be great to keep the 8," he said on Friday after qualifying for today’s race. "I'm sure my fans would appreciate that. You kind of have to keep the mindset that you might have to change numbers, so you start looking at other numbers and other things that might be interesting to you. There are a lot of numbers out there that I could use or would use or would like to use. It would be kind of cool… I'd like to design the cars myself and get into how the cars look themselves, so I'd like to be a big part of not only the decision of what number we are but how the number itself and how the car itself looks with regards to how the sponsor feels about that."
Now that the choice of team has been made, focus turns to Junior’s ability to win with a proven team -- and to win the Championship in a stable that already has a combined six Winston and Nextel Cup trophies in it’s cases. Mike Massaro asked Junior in an interview on ESPN Wednesday what will happen if he makes this move and he doesn’t win the elusive Championship he is seeking.
“I’m 32 years old, and I have to make the right decision for me. I know a lot of people don’t agree me leaving, and don’t agree with me going to drive for Rick. They’ll say ‘He wasn’t as good as his daddy’. There’s no argument there.” he replied frankly.
When asked what his dad would have thought about the situation he is in today, he responded “He’d be mad that I left DEI, he would be upset at the way that situation went down”, referring not to the fact he is going to HMS, but to the situation that led him to leave DEI in the first place. “But I believe at the end of the day he would be proud of everything I have done, that I was my own man, made my own decisions, I didn’t let anyone sway me.”
While there will be a lot of pressure on Junior to get that elusive Cup championship, Hendrick thinks he will be under the microscope even more than his newest driver. "I'm the one who feels the pressure," Hendrick said. "I want to get him where he wants to go. I will do everything in my power to make that happen."
Hendrick and the Earnhardt’s have been close since the days of Juniors childhood, when his grandfather, Robert Gee, helped Rick build cars. When Dale Sr. died, Hendrick was there to offer an ear and a shoulder to lean on for the Earnhardt children, and when Kelley was hospitalized earlier this year, it was Rick who helped find her a good surgeon, and supplied support to her and her family during her recovery.
Looking back, it almost seems inevitable that this pairing would happen. There is a napkin with a hand written contract drawn up by Rick and signed by a then-15-year old Junior. When Ricky Hendrick was still alive, he told his dad his goal was to one day sign the younger Earnhardt to the team. Rick just said “Yeah, right”.
Earnhardt Sr. fans just seem to have a hard time believing that their beloved driver would have anything happy to say about this partnership; however Junior is the first to say they are wrong in their assumption.
"I know my dad would trust Rick," Junior said. "They had a great amount of respect for each other and knew each other for a long time. And I know Dad would appreciate what Rick is trying to do and what he's done for me up to this point, and what he will do for me in the future and his approach and respect for my sister and my family.
"I know Dad would appreciate that, and he'd probably be a little jealous, to be honest with you."
A final note, I want to say congrats to Michael Waltrip for making his third race of the year. Two weeks ago I commented I wasn’t sure he ought to keep driving the car. Apparently, in some small way, he agreed with my thought process because next week, he is letting someone else drive the NAPA car for the first time since he took over the car with DEI in February of 2001.
Terry Labonte is coming out of retirement to take the wheel at the two road courses this year, and with it, he brings a Champion's provisional that trumps Bill Elliott’s Champion's provisional. That means the No. 55 will also be in the race for sure next week, whether it makes it on time or not. Suddenly, things are looking up for the No. 55 team. We’ll see if Mikey and the team have finally made it over that hump and are finding the road a little less bumpy.
The fact that Michael made the race this week also is the perfect birthday gift for my friend Belle, who is a big fan of his. You see, Belle marks a very special milestone this week (the big 4-0), and the No. 55 getting in the race is a nice, if unintended, present from her driver to her.
Happy Birthday Belle, Congrats Mikey, Good Luck Junior, and all the best to you dads out there. I hope everyone has a great Sunday.
You can contact Kim at.. Insider Racing News
Read other articles by Kim Roberson