Kingsport Times News Friday, August 28, 2015

June 14th, 2007 12:00 am by Kevin Castle

The roots of racing and NASCAR run deep in the Tri-Cities, and so does affection - in some cases - for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The second-generation driver is such an iconic figure that his image sometimes overshadows his racing.

With Wednesday's news of No. 8 joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, a sampling of local fans expressed satisfaction over "Junior's" jump to be Jeff Gordon's teammate.

"I called it about a month ago," said Mike Tiller of Bristol, who figured the falling out that Dale Jr. had with his stepmother and boss, Teresa Earnhardt, owner of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Junior's current employer, was enough to make him go to Hendrick.

Earnhardt Jr. had asked for majority control in the company his father started in the late 1990s, but Teresa Earnhardt declined that request, according to published reports, and Junior announced his intention to leave the company last month.

"This will probably be the greatest move he could have made because I think that kind of equipment will give him the chance to win. I just wonder how Jeff Gordon fans are going to take it," Tiller added.

Even the casual NASCAR fan knows of the split in fan bases between Earnhardt's red army and Gordon's platoon of rainbow warriors.

For those not in the know, the rift between these two factions can be characterized as the Hatfields and McCoys, or Tennessee versus Florida in football, or perhaps a chemistry lesson might suffice - oil and water.

"I don't like the idea of him being Jeff Gordon's teammate," said Krisha Fleming of Kingsport, donning a No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt.

"He is a way better driver than Gordon. Sure, Gordon may win a lot more races, but there's a lot more to winning races when it comes to picking a favorite driver. I just think Dale Jr. is special because I think he cares more about his fans."

Bristol Motor Speedway media relations official Lori Worley said the switch from DEI to Hendrick will do little to make the huge fan base that Junior has abandon him once the Nextel Cup series rolls back to Bristol in August.

"I would be surprised, but I really don't see that coming because his father was so beloved here at Bristol," said Worley.

"My gut feeling was that he was going to (Richard) Childress (Racing), but I do feel like that he is going into a great situation with the Hendrick team. With that lineup they have now, they have really got a megawatt team on their hands."

Rusty Mason of Rogersville feels that the move came at a point in Junior's career where he had to do something to energize things in his life.

"I guess he may be trying to get out from underneath his dad's shadow," said Mason speaking of Dale Earnhardt Sr., who was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.

"I was thinking that he might be able to break out on his own with his own team. It might give him a little more satisfaction to do something like that on his own, but I guess if a car owner who has won as much as Rick Hendrick offers you a job, it's hard to turn down."

Wayne Barrett of Church Hill thought that Junior would follow in his father's footsteps and drive for Richard Childress Racing, the race team that employed the elder Earnhardt for nearly 20 years.

"I guess he had to go where he thought the best fit would take place. Going to a place where his dad drove would be a lot of added pressure," said Barrett.

"I think it is a little surprising that he decided to go (to Hendrick Motorsports) but they have a pretty good record and have proven themselves to be solid. I think what will be the biggest thing is if Dale Jr. can get some of the guys on his current crew to come with him.

"Chemistry is a big thing, and you have got to have the right people around you to have a good team. But this is an opportunity that Junior may get to prove some of his critics wrong, that he's just not living off of his dad's legacy."

And as Tiller pointed out, "It's going to take a few races next year for everybody to get used to this. This is going to be exciting."

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