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Second Place

Dave Kallmann
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Family ties aren’t enough to hold DEI team together

     Hello, you reached Dale Jr.

     I cain’t come to the phone right now. Me an’ my sister have been awful busy since Thursday. Rick Hendrick wantin’ to buy me dinner, Richard Childress is sayin’ he’d show me my daddy’s favorite huntin’ spots and Joe Gibbs is offerin’ up season tickets. Lord, we been busy.

     But if you can help win me a Nextel Cup, leave a message. I’ll get back to you.

     Oh, you bet he will.

     Already a target of affection for countless screaming 20-, 30- and 40-something women and of envy among sunburned, burly Bud drinkers of the NASCAR Nation, Dale Earnhardt Jr. just grew more popular among the biggest movers and shakers in his business.

     Like any top athlete in any big sport, Junior filed for free agency. Yet this case isn’t the typical free agency.

Reggie didn’t leave the Philadelphia White for the Green Bay Packers in 1993. Alex didn’t leave the Texas Rodriguez for the New York Yankees after 2003. But at the end of this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will depart from Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team his late, famous father built around him.

     The lines on the graph intersected. Earnhardt became more valuable outside the tall gates of DEI than he was inside. Yearlong negotiations with his stepmother, Teresa, and her advisers proved that.

     “I can honestly say that we weren’t really close,” Earnhardt said at his news conference in Mooresville, N.C.

     He wants to win more races than the 17 he already has. He wants to win championships in the big league, too, not just the Busch Series. He wants his next deal to be his last.

     And in the case of DEI, Junior wanted majority ownership of the team, without paying Teresa for what he thought was already his. Not paying $55 million, anyway, if the reported asking price is correct.

     Junior presumably won’t take an ownership stake in whatever team hires him. But with a loyal legion of fans and with Anheuser-Busch’s eight-figure backing likely to follow, Earnhardt should find plenty of suitable suitors.

     The only thing he knows about his future, Earnhardt insisted, is that he’ll settle most comfortably into the seat of another Chevrolet. That leaves a few obvious choices and a whole handful of other possible surprises.

     “It is time for me to continue his legacy,” Junior said of Senior, “and the only way I know I can is by taking the life lessons that he taught me, be a man, race hard and contend for championships. Since that is what I plan to do, I feel strongly that I would have my father’s blessing.”

     The clear, sentimental favorite in the Dale Derby remains Richard Childress Racing. That has been the case since Dale Sr. died in the 2001 season opener, leaving vacant the No. 3 he drove to six of his seven championships.

     Childress and the elder Earnhardt were more than boss and employee. They were brothers. They were friends. Childress mourned in the same way Junior did, and he could make the perfect surrogate, the perfect mentor in racing and business, for a 32-year-old multimillionaire driver with boundless potential.

     But if the younger Earnhardt hopes to enhance his own identity apart from the elder’s, RCR wouldn’t be a good fit.

     “I’ve got to do a little soul searching about how I feel about driving a No. 3 car,” Earnhardt said. “He made that number what it is. It belongs to him, you know what I mean?“

     Childress also hasn’t won a title since Dale Sr. did 13 seasons ago. In that span, Hendrick Motorsports has won six championships and more than 100 races. Hendrick could give Dale Jr. his best chance to accomplish his goals.

     If Hendrick could lure Earnhardt, he’d have the three most marketable drivers in the sport: him, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. On the other hand, three could be one superstar too many for chemistry’s sake. Also, Hendrick has four Cup teams — NASCAR’s limit — and sponsor commitments through at least 2008.

     Then there’s Joe Gibbs Racing. The Coach is in position to add a fourth team, especially if it were well-funded. His track record includes three titles since 2000, and he already employs Junior’s good buddy, Tony Stewart.

     Earnhardt wants to move his own JR Motorsports up to the Cup level, but time is running short to even build a shop and assemble personnel for 2008. It wouldn’t be contender for several years.

     Could a smaller team emerge? Bobby Ginn has done wonders with Mark Martin this year and, let’s face it, he’s rich. The sport has a long history, though, of wealthy outsiders who’ve made a splash one day and disappeared the next. That wouldn’t fit with the Earnhardt plan.

     “When it comes down to it, this is my decision, and mine to make,” he said. “I’m going to miss the employees the most, some of the guys on my team that I may never get to work with again.

     “But I’m excited about looking over the horizon and seeing what’s out there and seeing what great things and cool things that we can become involved in.”

     Imagine the possibilities.

 

Hendrick had it coming

     You could say the fines, points penalties and suspensions incurred by Hendrick Motorsports this week were a case of NASCAR making a statement about modifications to the “ Car of Tomorrow.”

     Actually, the sanctioning body made that statement months ago.

     In black and white.

     On letterhead.

     So it should not have come as a surprise when Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were docked 100 points each and crew chiefs Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus were suspended for six races and fined $100,000 apiece after infractions were found on their cars last Friday.

     That’s exactly what the minimum penalty was to be, NASCAR said in a bulletin issued to teams before the new generation car ever raced.

     “They do have the digital data of that body, and NASCAR then went and cut sectional templates from that digital information,” Andy Petree, ESPN analyst and a former crew chief and team owner, said Thursday.

     “What they’re saying is, ‘This is the way that body is going to look, and at the track we’re going to have some certain places we’re going to check it.’ But that doesn’t mean that’s the only place they can check it.”

     The Hendrick cars touched at every template, but panels were manipulated in a way that the overall shape didn’t match NASCAR’s blueprint.

     The only plausible misunderstanding could have come from the fact that different rules govern what can be done to the composite nose. On the old cars, material may be cut and reshaped as long as the templates still fit, but on the new cars such changes are forbidden.

     “I think they felt like this is the way the game’s always been played, so they just did that,” Petree said. “I think it really caught them by surprise.

     “They thought that as long as that thing fit those templates, just like the old car, that it would go through.”

Move will help Petty build up

     Boston Garden came down in a heap, and Yankee Stadium will too.

     Eighty-one-year-old City Stadium still stands in Green Bay, although it’s a high school football field. The Packers haven’t played a game there since 1956.

     So maybe it won’t be long before racing fans forget about a whitewashed concrete maze that sprouted 59 years ago and houses NASCAR’s most successful team of all time. The earth will continue to spin long after Petty Enterprises moves to a modern shop in Mooresville, N.C.

     But like the other sports that lose brick-and-mortar reminders of their past, stock-car racing won’t be quite the same.

     “When you walk through the gates at Level Cross you walked through NASCAR history,” Richard Petty said Wednesday in making the announcement.

     “We were there when it started, when it went up and when it went down and all that kind of stuff. It’s really, really hard to do.”

     Hard, but long overdue.

     Lee Petty founded the team in 1949 in a dirt-floor building just yards from the house in which Richard was born. The complex grew, and through its first 34 years, Petty Enterprises won 265 races, 10 championships and nine Daytona 500s, but the sport changed. Big-money owners bought better equipment and put up nicer buildings that attracted the workforce to the Charlotte area, 70 miles from the Petty complex.

     Since October 1983, Petty cars have been to victory lane exactly three times.

     “It’s sort of like Green Bay,” said Petty, a Packers fan. “Green Bay used to be on top of the heap, then they went down to the bottom of the heap, then they’ve worked their way back up.

     “We used to be at the top of the heap, and we went down. We want to get back up there and do that again. We were not going to be able to accomplish that where we were at under the same management and under the same way we were running business forever.”

     The old shop isn’t going anywhere, although Petty isn’t quite sure what function it’ll serve. The next step, undoubtedly, is for the team to take on a partner.

     All of this is progress. Really, it is. It’s inevitable. It’s necessary.

     And it’s sad, too. You don’t have to be nostalgic for the buildings, necessarily, just for what they represent.

 

Tightening up loose lug nuts

     Oh, how we love to complain and argue. That’s what sports fans do best.

     Spend enough time around the racetrack and you don’t even need another person to offer perspective from the other side. So here we go . . .

     Point: California was a boring race. No wonder NASCAR is a tough sell in Los Angeles. Keep that up, and the fans will revolt, TV ratings will plummet and NASCAR will fade back into a niche sport.

     Counterpoint: What? You want to plow up the pavement and turn the California Speedway into another mile-and-a-half with a dogleg on the front stretch? Uh . . . we’ve got enough of those. Variety and versatility are important.

     It’s ridiculous to expect every race to be side-by-side, edge-of-your-seats stuff all afternoon, and strategy and the thrill of the chase ought to be worth something to fans who claim to be knowledgeable and sophisticated. Charlotte’s good, and so is half-mile Bristol and 2_-mile Daytona and the Infineon road course. But a steady diet of any of them? That would be boring.

     Point: NASCAR has to stop throwing the caution flag for fly poop on the racetrack, or whatever it is that conveniently interrupts races. Nobody buys those lame excuses. Where’s the integrity?

     Counterpoint: What do you want, races that run their natural course, or more excitement? To argue for one is to forfeit your right to complain about the other.

     Point: So what’s Mr. Variety’s take on the “Car of Tomorrow“ then? NASCAR has fans that have rooted for particular makes forever. There’s little incentive for a manufacture to stick around if a Chevy looks like a Dodge looks like a Ford looks like a Toyota.

     Counterpoint: Hello! This isn’t 1955 anymore, or even 1975. Street cars have become more homogenized over time. The drivers are the stars, as they should be, and it’s not a bad thing that stars stick around because the cars are safer.

     Point: But this isn’t supposed to be IROC.

     Counterpoint: Not that it would be wrong to decide races on driver talent, but teams still will have opportunity to work with setups. Yes, this car is different from the current version, but it’s still a race car.

     Point: Mark Martin leads the NASCAR points after two weeks. He should scrap his partial schedule and go for that championship he so richly deserves.

     Counterpoint: Whoa, there. It’s way too early to be thinking championship. Maybe it’ll be worth rethinking at some point, but it’s Martin’s call, and he also deserves to go away however he wants. One more long shot, after 20-plus years of trying, might not be as much fun or as important as mentoring newcomers and driving whatever Martin feels like driving.

     Point: Arguing with yourself? What is it, 17 years of exhaust fumes?

     Counterpoint: That or the snow. This may be the one point on which we can agree.