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Dale Earnhardt Jr., The Gravest Loss In The History Of NASCAR?
An Opinion

August 27, 2007
By Larry Cottrill
Larry Cottrill

With the "Free the 8" battle now over, it appears all that remains between Dale Earnhardt Jr and stepmother Teresa are thirteen weeks of finishing out a once promising, but now disappointing season. It’s sad, given the time they spent together as Teresa and older sister Kelley were primarily the ones who raised Junior from 1982 onward to adulthood.

Many details are still uncertain on both sides of the equation. Who will replace Dale Jr. in the DEI #8 car? Will it still be a Budweiser-sponsored car? What number will Dale Jr. run in his new Hendrick Motorsports ride? What sponsor will it carry? Will either the new driver of the #8 or Dale Jr. achieve the future success they envision? What other owners and teams will be affected when the dominoes begin to fall as Juniors replacement is announced?

These are certainly the main story lines heading into 2008 and beyond, even overshadowing the full-time implementation of the "Car-of-Tomorrow" and Toyota’s expansion (Joe Gibbs Racing) and further development.

With Dale Jr., being by a wide margin, the most popular driver in the sport, Teresa has largely been cast as the villain in the rift between the two. She’s cast as the greedy, evil and wicked stepmother who married a star athlete, lived well off of him, and now wants to take her own cut off of the son’s earnings (through a continued percentage of the #8 royalties, had he chose to accept her offer).

Meanwhile, countless interviews given over the last two decades by both Dale Sr. and Dale Jr. attest to the integral role that Teresa had in establishing the DEI empire, and innovating the marketing of NASCAR drivers that is enjoyed by all today.

Dale Jr. has received little flak for his part in their disagreements due to his loyal fanbase, other than "defecting" to Hendrick Motorsports and becoming a teammate of Jeff Gordon (the one driver that fans of Dale Jr. & Sr. always wanted both of them to hate - though the rivalries between Gordon and the Earnhardts was professional, not personal).

As much as I am not supposed to express personal feelings as a journalist, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that Dale Jr. is indeed my favorite active driver/personality in the sport. That being said, I’m not sure that he was totally forthcoming in his initial press conference with Kelley when he announced his intentions to leave DEI.

At the time, he expressed that his decision was based entirely on his desires to achieve his career goal of a Cup Championship, and his apparent belief that he would not be able to attain that objective while driving for DEI. He said that unless he could gain majority ownership, and therefore control, of DEI, that he was not confident in the organization’s ability to field the elite level equipment that would yield the elusive title.

There was some conjecture that DEI had indeed allowed a number of other ownership groups to pull ahead of DEI in the technology arms race.

The current holy grail of NASCAR technology is the "7-post shaker rig", a multi-million dollar piece of equipment that can simulate aerodynamic downforce and tire-deflection, and their effects on suspension geometry under every conceivable stress-load of racing conditions.

DEI had not purchased their own shaker rig, and it may have been the tipping point in Dale Jr.’s decision to seek majority ownership and control. Maybe this was seen by Dale Jr. as a lack of total commitment to performance as opposed to profit by Teresa. However, the DEI / Ginn Motorsports merger (under which, DEI essentially inherited the new Ginn shaker rig) took place so quickly after Dale Jr.’s departure that I’m left to wonder if he was aware of the negotiations between DEI & Ginn beforehand, and decided to leave anyhow. Regardless, in comments made in recent weeks, it’s apparent that Junior’s reasons for leaving were as much or more so personal than performance related.

Being a historian of the sport and the personalities within, I have the highest hopes that both Junior and DEI (Teresa) win Nextel/Sprint Cups, even if they have to do so separately.

Being a fan of the two people themselves, I pray that some day, before too many precious years have past, that Teresa and Junior will be able to put aside their pride and their differences, appreciate the times and experiences that they’ve shared together, and make happy a great man who’s beyond a doubt rolling in his grave as they remain apart.

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The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.

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