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What’s with Jr. driving the No. 3?

Last Thursday, while race fans were looking ahead to Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond, a most unlikely group appeared in front of the cameras and news media at the offices of Dale Earnhardt Inc. in Mooresville, N.C. Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat beside his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt. They smiled, laughed a bit and were entirely civil to each other. Richard Childress sat to Junior’s left.
They came together to announce, through a joint effort among Richard Childress Racing, JR Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Inc, and Wrangler Jeans, that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will pay tribute to his father’s upcoming induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame by driving the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet Impala in the July 2 Subway Jalapeno 250 powered by Coca-Cola Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

This was a far cry from the name-calling and innuendo in 2007 that turned the operation of the once powerful DEI into a soap opera. At the time, Dale Jr. said his relationship with his stepmother was, “not a bed of roses.” He went on to demand a 51 percent ownership stake in DEI.
Teresa took a lot of heat when she was quoted as saying, “Right now the ball’s in his court to decide whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or whether he wants to be a public personality.” It’s funny, looking back, I’ve thought a lot about that statement as we have watched Junior struggle these past three years.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came on to the racing scene like the second coming or the chosen one as he was dubbed by the fans and media alike. He won back-to-back Nationwide Series Championships in 1998 and 1999, before moving up to the Cup series and becoming an instant star, driving for his father’s race team.
He won twice in 2000, his first full season of Cup racing. He would lose his father, Dale Sr., in the season-opening Daytona 500 in 2001. In spite of the grief of losing his father and the unbelievable pressure of being in the spotlight and under a microscope 24-7, he went on to three wins in 2001.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. racked up 17 Cup wins before his relationship with his stepmother deteriorated to the point that, when his contract with DEI was up in 2007, Junior bolted to Hendrick Motorsports.
Neither Dale Jr. nor DEI have been the same since. In spite of the gigantic resources of Hendrick Motorsports and team owner Rick Hendrick’s personal commitment to put Junior back on the winning track, Junior has won just once since leaving DEI — at a gas mileage race at Michigan in 2008.
Scuttlebutt has always been that Dale Jr. would eventually end up driving for his father’s former team owner Richard Childress. Earnhardt nation, would like nothing better than to see Junior behind the wheel of a No. 3 Chevrolet from Richard Childress Racing. Dale Jr. has always maintained that he may drive a No. 3 Chevrolet for RCR toward the end of his career.
Hendrick Motorsports recently announced they have signed Kacey Kahne to drive their No. 5 Chevrolet in 2012 and will arrange an unannounced ride for Kahne in 2011. Add to that the popular and still winning Mark Martin’s comments that he is not ready to hang up his helmet any time soon and it gives you pause to wonder if the July 2 ride with Richard Childress is actually just a one-time event.
Now 35 and more than two years since his last win, in spite of all the muscle, money and brain power Hendrick Motorsports has invested to try to make Junior a winner, this looks like a face-saving way out for all concerned. A final tour with RCR in a Dale Earnhardt repli-car will generate a ton of memorabilia sales and a huge stack of big buck personal appearance requests. Dale Jr. could then gracefully retire from the driver’s seat to run JR. Motorsports and his many other business interests.
“Dale Jr. must decide if he wants to be a NASCAR driver or a public personality.” Teresa Earnhardt pretty much had the situation nailed.
You may reach Pete Barber
at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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