In a way, Junior's move to Hendrick is the gutsiest one he could have made. He will have no excuse for losing, other than that he just doesn't have the talent his daddy done had. Junior has complained about DEI's equipment, but at Hendrick, he'll be sitting in a competitive car every week and comparing notes with two of the best drivers in the business. As he told ESPN's NASCAR Now yesterday, Earnhardt wants to know: "Am I a great racecar driver?" It will be fun to find out the answer.
Yet, as a fan of stock-car racing, I can't say I'm thrilled by Junior's choice. The rivalry between Gordon and Earnhardt will be muted now that they're teammates, even if their fans refuse to sign a beer-can ceasefire. That rivalry—the king of beers vs. the king of polymers, the most popular vs. the most accomplished, legacy vs. dynasty—has been good for NASCAR, a compelling and ongoing narrative that has carried the sport through many a boring race and not infrequent cheating scandals.
They probably won't admit it, but the NASCAR brass can't be all that happy with Junior's decision, either. They've been working hard to increase parity in the sport, with the introduction of the controversial Car of Tomorrow and by reducing the number of cars the big teams can field. NASCAR wants races to be won on the racetrack, by the best drivers, not in the garage, by the wealthiest teams.
Earnhardt, with his unmatched earning potential—according to the Charlotte Observer, he alone "accounts for 30 percent of the sport's estimated $500 million in merchandise sales"—just made a rich team richer, and in the long run probably even more dominant. Because of his singular stature in the sport, Junior had the ability to swing the balance of power in racing. No one thought he was going to get behind the wheel of Morgan Shepherd's Racing With Jesus Dodge. But if he had joined Gibbs or Richard Childress Racing, or even struck out on his own, he could have contended for a championship and—get ready for a bad analogy—helped create a Red Sox to Hendrick's Yankees. (Actually, the Red Sox already own half a racing team, but you get the idea.) If I were a very hairy man with an "8" on my back, I'd be excited that my guy's now poised for a run at the Cup. But if I were in NASCAR's front office, I'd be crying into my Budweiser.