Junior facing difficult decisions about future

Dave Ongie • May 14, 2007 at 10:54 AM

As Dale Earnhardt Jr. read a prepared statement about his future as a race car driver last week, he slouched over the microphone.

You could almost see the crushing weight of his father's legacy teetering on his shoulders as he stated that he would almost certainly have his dad's blessing.

The decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. was not an easy one, but it was made much harder without the benefit of his father's advice.

Junior would probably trade every cent he stands to make as the sport's biggest free agent for five minutes of advice from his father.

But as hard as it was to walk away from DEI, a bigger decision looms as Junior decides where to spend the rest of his career.

As he said, his father came to the same crossroads at the same age and chose Richard Childress Racing, a decision that brought a flurry of championships and made Dale Sr. a legend.

But the sport has changed a lot since Junior's dad signed with Childress, and it's changed in ways that make the decision all the more important.

The options on the table seem to be limited to the following: driving the No. 3 car for Childress, joining a dynasty in the making at Hendrick Motorsports, joining a pair of friends at Joe Gibbs Racing, taking a chance with Ginn Racing or striking out on his own and starting a Cup team out of JR Motorsports.

Dale Jr. may not be able to talk it over with his father, but there are a few conversations he does need to have over the coming weeks and months.

Junior needs to start by talking to Kevin Harvick about the dark days following the death of Dale Sr.

He needs to hear how heavy of a burden it was to drive The Intimidator's car week in and week out, how even though the number and the paint scheme were changed, everyone knew whose car it was.

Junior needs to know how the shadow was always there and that Harvick didn't quit feeling like an intruder until a sponsor change prior to this year's Daytona 500, six years after he first strapped into Dale Sr.'s ride.

Junior also needs to talk to Brian Vickers, a talented young driver who felt like a third wheel while driving at Hendrick Motorsports.

Vickers could tell him a thing or two about being shut out of meetings or toiling away in obscurity as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch got all the headlines.

That wouldn't be a problem for Junior, the most popular driver on the circuit, but he needs to know that Hendrick Motorsports is Gordon's team and that won't change anytime soon.

Next, Junior needs to sit down with Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart and take a look at some footage of the Car of Tomorrow races.

Stewart and Hamlin could point to how fast their cars are, boasting that Gibbs Racing is one of the only teams close to competing with Hendrick in CoT races.

But those reels of footage would also be littered with broken fuel pumps and boneheaded pit stops that have kept Stewart and Hamlin out of victory lane at the end of numerous races.

Junior needs to talk to Mark Martin about how Ginn Racing has rejuvenated his career. Martin can tell him how climbing into the No. 01 Chevy has been kind of like Wilfred Brimley climbing into the swimming pool in "Cocoon."

With Ginn's technology and the sponsorship dollars Junior would bring in, it could be a perfect fit.

But Martin also needs to remind Junior that he's not going to be around very long and a stable that includes Reagan Smith, Joe Nemechek and Sterling Marlin isn't exactly a promising nucleus for a powerhouse.

If he's starting to have thoughts about starting his own team at this point, Junior needs to sit down for a quiet chat with Michael Waltrip.

Waltrip will have no trouble finding the time - he hasn't worked a weekend since Daytona.

Waltrip can tell Junior about building an organization from the ground up and explain how hard it is to take so many people from so many different backgrounds and teach them to communicate.

He can also fill Junior in on the white-knuckled pressure of showing up every week knowing you have two laps to qualify or you'll have to pack it all up and go home.

Clearly, there is no perfect situation waiting out there. In the end, Junior will have to follow in Dale Sr.'s footsteps, but that won't necessarily lead him to RCR.

His father may not be around, but Junior can still follow his advice by following his example - he needs to be his own man, listen to his gut and go wherever he thinks he can race hard and race for championships.

Not long after the press conference last Thursday, Teresa Earnhardt expressed her disappointment in the fact that Junior was leaving the family business.

Well, maybe I can ease her mind a bit - for an Earnhardt, being your own man is the family business, and the family business is finally getting a new Junior partner.

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