Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is headed to Hendrick Motorsports. I am not even a NASCAR uber-fan and yet I need to blog about this because it is huge- nay... HUGE- sports news.
The purists can cry, "Sacrilege"! The casual fans can say, "What about my #8 hat (or indoor/outdoor cooler table with umbrella)?!!!" The non-fans can say, "What number is he again?" But make no mistake about it, the biggest factor here is not what this does to the fans (hint: they'll still show up, they'll still root for Junior). Nope, the biggest line item here is that Dale Jr., despite a "mere" 17 wins to his resume, is proving he is the most marketable face in NASCAR- and maybe all of sports.
Where's the evidence? Two words- Hendrick Motorsports. Call them the Yankees. Call them greedy. Call them arrogant. Call them whatever you want, but know this- the most successful racing team in the business (10 wins out of 14 races this year) with 3 of the most high-profile drivers already under its hood (John, Gordon, Busch) just landed the biggest fish in the business. They gave Kyle Busch his walking papers to do it (read: he's an attitude problem they were glad to be done with anyway). They were willing to take the quick PR hit (read: fan backlash) that will last a mere 24 hours (until the official Hendrick press conference) to ensure their (already) dominant future in the sport. They told the 2006 Cup champ, Jimmie Johnson, that he needs to make room on the team for a driver that is not as skilled as he is (Jimmie's top 3, Junior maybe top 10). And they just told Jeff Gordon- a guy that has finished 1st in nearly 80 races, has 4 Cup titles and garnered over 75 million dollars in winnings that he is second-best to one of his biggest rivals (and don't think for a second Gordon is upset).
Why? Because the face of the sport, for better or worse, is Junior. The kid is a money machine, a merchandiser's dream. And better yet- he wants to simply... win. This gives Hendrick literally a three-headed Hydra that will be gunning for Cup titles for at least the next decade. And how can you not, not put these guys in the Top 10 (i.e., Chase for the Cup) at the start of every season? Imagine that? When February rolls around and everyone is talking Daytona, Hendrick just insured they will be first on everyone's lips no matter what for the entire season- from first race to last. That is exposure you simply cannot buy my friend- well, um... at least not until now.
This is bigger than Messier signing with the Rangers in the early 90's. Way bigger than Reggie White opening NFL free agency to sign with the Packers. Infinitely bigger than A-Rod's payday with the Rangers. Beckham's move from Manchester U. to Real Madrid? Small potatoes. (Which, by the way, makes his signing with L.A. in the MLS infinitesimally small by comparison.) This is bigger than almost every free agent deal ever signed in any sport.
The only thing that comes close to another athlete holding court over a sport like Dale Jr. does with NASCAR is Tiger. And that's because Tiger is universal- a worldly figure known in every corner of the globe. Like Beckham was in his prime. Or Pele before that. (Note- these types of figures have global presence, the key factor that trumps Junior's signing with HMS because NASCAR is a U.S. Sport- and a niche one at that.
Make no mistake about it. You may not like Junior. Or Hendrick Motorsports. Or, heck, NASCAR. But like the Yankees, you now better stand up and respect a team and its players willing to throw down the gauntlet to win it all- for a long time to come.
Posted by Jingoist at 9:15 AM