With the conclusion of the 2007 season, three major events promised to change the fabric of NASCAR: Joe Gibbs Racing made the change from Chevrolet to Toyota; Kyle Busch switched from Hendrick Motorsports to Gibbs Racing; and Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the transition from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick.
The move from the company his fabled father began astonished many of his fans. Early in Earnhardt's negotiations to sign with another team, it appeared that he would sign with Richard Childress Racing, the organization that his late father won six of his seven championships with. However, Childress Racing never seemed to aggressively pursue Junior.
The move to Hendrick was by all accounts a win-win situation for Earnhardt. He would sign with a team that had significant engineering successes when compared to other teams and that was a proven winner. This was a high priority for Earnhardt, who had six engine failures and a total of nine DNFs while running for DEI in 2007. In comparison, the four drivers from Hendrick Motorsports had only one engine failure.
Hendrick received a marketing goldmine, a driver with tremendous fan loyalty who has won the Most Popular Driver Award five years running and someone who could fill the void of Busch's departure.
Earnhardt succeeds with Hendrick
Earnhardt's move to Hendrick has brought dramatic improvements to his standing and finishes. Through the first eight races of 2008, he sits third place in the standings, whereas last year he stood in 15th. To fully appreciate his improvement, a look at his average finish from last season at this time (20.5) when compared to this season (10.5) is significant. Through the first eight races last season, he had recorded two top-10 finishes. This year, he has six finishes in the top 10 with Hendrick to exemplify his progression.
Few fans and insiders have doubted his driving skills or determination to be the best. The fact that Earnhardt has never won a championship has been attributed to a lack of team engineering, which DEI attempted to rectify by merging with Ginn Racing during the 2007 season.
Even without a 2008 checkered flag under his belt, Earnhardt is by all accounts having a great year. He is able to concentrate all his energies and abilities on the track, without worrying about the resources at Hendrick letting him down and the off-track distractions that plagued him last season.
What Earnhardt has gained and what he left behind
Earnhardt is no longer involved in family squabbles at "the office." His separation from the stormy relationship with his stepmother and DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt has allowed him to improve his race day focus. The teammates Earnhardt gained in his switch cannot be underestimated either. Having Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon as partners is of great value to him. Each driver has won multiple Cup championships.
Few would dispute that Earnhardt drives with improved technology and resources with Hendrick. DEI's engines were powerhouses, especially on restrictor plate tracks, but they were not durable, as witnessed by Earnhardt's six engine failures last season. At this point in 2007, he had already encountered two engine failures; he has none this year.
At DEI, he was the main driver with little to gain from the other team members. The merger with Ginn Racing brought the experienced driving skills of Mark Martin to the DEI team, but the two drivers never had the chance to work through a whole season together.
At Hendrick, Earnhardt is the recipient of valuable setups and technological improvements from multiple championship teams. The experience and tutelage he has received from Hendrick could be considered a chief component of his early season successes. The lineage of championships with Hendrick is notable, with four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships in the last 10 years, while DEI does not have a single one during that time. Needless to say, driving for a winning team has been a missing component for Earnhardt.
This season's outlook
The remainder of the season looks very bright for Earnhardt. We have not witnessed any major mechanical problems that haunted him last season. He has led 355 laps this year compared to 234 last year at this time. In all but one race this season, he was a dominant factor that had a chance to win each race. A trip to Victory Lane is the first step in Earnhardt's quest to win his first championship.
It has been nearly two years since his last points race victory, which came in the Crown Royal 400 at Richmond International Raceway May 6, 2006. In this young season we have seen Earnhardt run with many opportunities for that first victory with Hendrick. It seems only a matter of time until we see all the synergies of the switch to Hendrick translate to a win. The next race comes at Talladega Superspeedway, where many believe Earnhardt could put an end to the victory drought he has endured for almost two years.
His fans remain loyal and have not abandoned him with his move to Hendrick. Every time Dale Jr. takes the lead, you can hear a roar of approval from his loyal fans.
Any major changes drivers face will create a period of adjustment. Earnhardt has made that transition smoothly. He sits in third place in the standings during a time when most drivers are still working out kinks and adjusting to the changes. Earnhardt is a good bet to win at Talladega and appears poised to be in a position to win his first Cup championship. All the missing pieces are now in place, and fantasy owners who have the fortune of having Earnhardt on their team should play him with confidence at every track type, especially superspeedways, through the rest of the season.