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Publication: NASCAR News
Junior vs. Busch

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          NASCAR NEWS - Thursday, June 12, 2008

When it comes to Junior vs. Busch, there are no losers
Both drivers have thrived with their new organizations
By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM

On the surface, it would be easy to think that Rick Hendrick
made a mistake. After all, the driver he let go, Kyle Busch,
has won a series-leading four races for Joe Gibbs Racing 
and has established himself as the frontrunner for the 
Sprint Cup crown. The driver he hired, Dale Earnhardt Jr., 
heads to Michigan International Speedway this week with his 
winless streak stretching to 76 races. 

Yes, events have certainly taken an unpredictable turn 
since that news conference one year ago Friday uniting 
NASCAR's biggest organization with NASCAR's biggest star. 
So it's simple to see why some folks in the grandstand 
think the Hendrick Motorsports owner should have stuck 
with the status quo, looking past Busch's stubbornness 
and toward his limitless potential. It's simple to see 
why some believe he should have locked Busch up long term, 
just as he did with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, and 
let Earnhardt sign with another organization where the 
stakes and the expectations weren't quite so high. It's 
simple to see why there are whispers and rumblings that 
Earnhardt's five-year deal was a gross miscalculation. 

And to all that, we say: rubbish.


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Trying to discern winners and losers 14 races into the 
Earnhardt-Busch swap is beyond shortsighted. It's 
ludicrous, given that both drivers are going to be in 
their current seats for several seasons, and show every 
sign of thriving in their relatively new environments. 
Busch has four victories, but he still has his Kyle 
moments, and his hard-charging style prompts questions 
over whether he can stay out front the entire season. 
Earnhardt doesn't have a race win, but he's firmly 
ensconced in Chase position, is off to his best start 
ever, and has a handful of poor finishes that aren't 
necessarily his fault. 

In Vegas terms, right now this is a push. You have two 
drivers who are enjoying successful first seasons -- 
granted, one a little more above-the-radar than the 
other -- with organizations that seem to fit their styles 
and their personalities. Busch and Earnhardt left Pocono 
Raceway last Sunday a respective first and third in 
championship points, both of them the standard-bearer 
for organizations they only joined months ago. Both have 
assimilated flawlessly. With apologies to Jeff Burton, 
it's very easy to envision a scenario in which Busch and 
Earnhardt are racing for the championship as relentlessly 
as they raced one another that night in Richmond a month 

There are no losers in this deal. Earnhardt, a Nationwide 
Series car owner with a keen appreciation for the history 
of the sport, meshes perfectly with a Hendrick organization 
that's renowned for keeping sponsors happy and remembering 
its roots. Busch, the occasional wild child who always 
seemed a little out of place in Hendrick's buttoned-down 
culture, is clearly more at home on a Gibbs team run by 
an ex-football coach who knows how to manage people while 
letting them be themselves at the same time. In each case, 
that level of comfort can not be overstated. For a driver 
to be successful, first he has to be content -- something 
Busch and Earnhardt weren't necessarily last year, but 
clearly are now. 

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For Earnhardt especially, the change has been a dramatic 
one. The sniping with his stepmother Teresa, the public 
fight for control of Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- all of that 
now seems like it occurred a very, very long time ago. 
He's gone from a season in which he was the headline every 
week to one where he's just another driver in the top 12. 
Surely some expected a bigger bang -- Darrell Waltrip's 
projection of six race wins in 2008 jumps immediately to 
mind -- but you get the impression that driver No. 88 seems 
very comfortable with where he is, his focus on the car 
and the race team rather than the issues that made last 
season such a struggle. 

"I have a new job, everything is different about it. I am 
happier, yes. I have a good team, have good cars. The one 
thing that may stick out is the pressure and the stress is 
a lot less because there is more confidence now with the 
equipment and the team, my future and the company's ability 
to be a frontrunner over a long period of time. That is 
really good. So for the next five years, I will have a 
good opportunity at that each year," Earnhardt said last 
week at Pocono. 

"I just don't have to worry. I guess I just really worried 
a lot about DEI and its future and how successful it would 
be and how healthy it was, and I don't have to worry about 
that as much. They have really good people working at 
Hendrick Motorsports that are there to assure the success 
of the company for a long time. Those types of things are 
out of my hands and I can just concentrate on my job. I 
get good criticism and feedback from my owner that helps 
me understand what my job is and what I am supposed to 
do. How to do it differently. It is just an easier deal. 
My days off are a lot more worry-free. I have noticed that 
a little bit." 

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As for Busch? The results speak for themselves. He's been 
fast since the first instant he stepped into a Joe Gibbs 
Racing Toyota, zooming to the top of the speed chart in a 
test of the new car at Atlanta Motor Speedway late last 
year. He's fit well with crew chief Steve Addington, whose 
easy-going manner is the perfect balance to Busch's hard-
nosed style. He's going fast, he's winning races, and he's 
given the latitude to try things like last weekend's three-
race, three-state, three-day tripleheader, which earned 
the kid some respect despite the sub-par race results that 

And while we're on the subject, don't give me this junk 
about how Busch should have stayed in Pocono all weekend. 
Yes, he finished three laps down in the Nationwide race 
and crashed out of the Sprint Cup event. But that kind 
of competitiveness can't be taught. These are all 
preliminaries anyway, and he's still the championship 
favorite whether his lead is 10 points or 100. Let him 
go race powerboats in the Keys if he wants to. He's all 
but earned a spot in the Chase, and as a result the right 
to try something a little different every once in a while. 
Joe Gibbs' willingness to let him do it is a perfect 
example of the hands-off management style that's worked 
so well in both NASCAR and the NFL. 

Busch is thriving in that environment, just as Earnhardt 
is thriving in one where the focus is completely on 
performance. Those were whirlwind days last year, when 
Earnhardt's decision to leave DEI created a domino effect 
that resulted in two top drivers landing with two top 
teams. No, they're not quite even right now in terms of 
race victories and statistics. But they are in terms of 
satisfaction, something much more difficult to achieve. 

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