There’s nothing’s new about NASCAR’s calendar rolling over to another season. Drivers switch seats, cars change numbers and colors and crew chiefs find new places to park their tool boxes. It’s part of the game.
But this year is different.
When preseason testing opens Monday at Daytona International Speedway, with teams beginning preparations for the historic 50th Daytona 500, things have shifted to an almost Teutonic degree.
The No. 8 Chevrolet team will be among nearly two dozen teams taking part in three days of tests at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. But, for the first time since that team was formed at Dale Earnhardt Inc., Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not a part of it.
Veteran Mark Martin and rookie Aric Almirola, instead, now share that ride.
Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, will wait for the second session of Cup testing before beginning his new career chapter in No. 88 Chevrolets owned and prepared by Hendrick Motorsports.
His new teammates, two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears, test this week, clearing the stage for Earnhardt Jr.’s unofficial 2008 Hendrick debut a week from Monday.
The family schism behind the most talked-about driver change in a racing generation is not new, either. A year ago, as 2007 testing began, Earnhardt Jr. spoke about his stepmother, DEI chief executive officer Teresa Earnhardt.
“Mine and Teresa’s relationship has always been very black and white, very strict and in your face,” he said.
“It ain’t a bed of roses. ...The relationship that we have today is the same relationship we had when I was 6 years old when I moved into that house with Dad and her. ...The way I felt about her then is the way I feel about her now.”
Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother have not spoken, he said recently, since a contract negotiating session early last year.
“I don’t think it’s a closed chapter,” Earnhardt Jr. said of his relationship with Teresa. “I don’t want to sound like I’m writing her off for the rest of my life.”
But Earnhardt Jr. said his focus now is has turned to other matters.
“I want to do right by myself,” he said. “What’s important right now is what’s important, and that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
And what’s important, he said, is winning.
Earnhardt Jr. has 17 career victories, but had none in 2007. While only Johnson, Gordon and Tony Stewart have won more races since Earnhardt Jr. made the first of his 291 career starts, Earnhardt Jr. has not won in 62 races.
He has won only twice in 110 starts since his sixth win of 2004 at Phoenix.
“The only memory I have is how badly we ran last year,” Earnhardt Jr. said of his final season at DEI, which saw him officially fall out early nine times – six with engine failures. “I want to get out there and get top-five finishes and feel like that’s where I belong. ...
"I’m ticked off we didn’t win a race. ...That bothers me every day.”
It also spurred his move to what has emerged as NASCAR’s most dominant team. Johnson’s second straight Cup title and 10-win season punctuated a year in which the Rick Hendrick-owned four-car operation amassed 18 wins in 36 Cup races. Hendrick also put three drivers – Johnson, Gordon and the since-departed Kyle Busch – in the top five in the final 2007 standings.
Will anything short of winning the 2008 championship with his new No. 88 team satisfy Earnhardt Jr.’s legion of fans and silence the driver’s critics?
“When Dale Jr. is going to satisfy everybody is a great question,” said Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, his sister and business manager, who negotiated the new deal.
“Following in the footsteps of Dad (seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt), is it winning seven championships or winning a certain number of races? What are we trying to compare him to? I think the expectations will never be able to be managed in terms of what people expect.”
But Elledge said she also believes the move from DEI to Hendrick provides a much better chance to accomplish their goals on the track and in the racing marketplace as well.
“I can’t imagine ...that they can’t get into Hendrick equipment and do 50 percent better than they did,” she said of Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who made the move along with the driver.
“ ...Knowing what they did with what they were working with and what they’re going to work with now and how it’s all falling together, I expect several wins – three or four at least.
“I wouldn’t be crazy enough to say he’s going to win the championship. But he might.”
What Elledge said she wants most out of 2008 for her brother and his fans is to bring back the kind of excitement that comes with doing what made the Earnhardt name famous in racing.
“There’s this huge legion of people out there who pull for Dale Jr., and what I think they have lost sight of a little bit is the excitement of him winning and being up front,” she said.
“That and not having to worry in the last five laps if something is going to happen every single race. It might still happen. But it isn’t going to be every week when a part is breaking or an engine is blowing or this or that is happening.
“At the track, if he falls out half the people go home, or his fans turn off the television. All of those people will have a reason to sit there and watch, and when that rush comes back to them the whole rush of everything will come back.”
Rating The Contemporaries
Eight drivers who had their Cup rookie seasons between 1999 and 2003 have won at least 10 races. Here's how that group's career numbers stand up to each other:
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||2000||291||17||121||16.4||0|
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has 17 Cup victories, and since he moved into the series in 1999 Dale Earnhardt Inc. had 24. Here's how that compares with drivers who've won 16 or more races since 1999: