Harris: What now for Junior?
It's not exactly Roger Clemens to the Yankees in terms of direct fantasy impact, but make no mistake, the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will leave the company his father founded at the end of 2007 is significant. Here's why:
• It essentially renders DEI an afterthought for 2008. With Junior out of the No. 8 (boy that beer commercial where Little E contemplates changing his number turns out to have been prophetic, huh?) and considering Martin Truex Jr. seems likely to follow, DEI will have to start over in 2008. This organization has had flashes of brilliance, especially on restrictor-plate tracks, but it's also made more than its fair share of organizational Dunder Mifflins, including swapping crews and equipment between Junior and former DEI driver Michael Waltrip a couple of years back, a brainstorm that caused Earnhardt to miss the Chase for the Cup. DEI's apparent lack of adequate preparation for the Car of Tomorrow, at least compared to enterprises like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, may have been the proverbial straw here. It's not like Junior hasn't minted money for this company. Why they didn't spend enough of it on the COT to get up front in these initial rear-winged races in '07 will forever be a mystery.
• It makes us think twice about using Junior on our fantasy teams in '07. Earnhardt made all kinds of promises about how hard he and his team will work for the rest of this year, but by explicitly indicting DEI as not being equipped to win a championship, Little E has essentially taped a "Do Not Use" sign to the No. 8's rear bumper for the rest of '07. The Silly Season has evidently come sooner than ever this year, and the defection of the sport's biggest name makes this season sillier than most and we all know what happens during Silly Season. Once driver changes are announced, teams lose focus, they trust one another less, they care less, and they aren't as successful. Junior can make all the noise he wants about pride and such; human nature dictates that when you know an arrangement is short-term, you're less likely to overcome adversity. A whole lot of people in the DEI organization have to start thinking about whether they'll be able to put food on the table in 2008. We'll have to wait and see, but methinks there's a good chance that few DEI employees will go out of their way to sacrifice for their own personal lame duck.
• Gibbs or Childress will get tastier next year. I doubt the wooing of Dale Jr. will go on all year; at some point, a Chevy team will call a press conference and announce they've just landed the LeBron James of motorsports. (Maybe not the absolute best driver, but without question the most popular one.) For all the sense it makes, it's not going to be Hendrick, because they're already maxed out at four teams (boy, that deal to sign Casey Mears this offseason is looking better and better). That means either Gibbs (home of Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley) or Richard Childress Racing (home of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer) is almost certainly going to land LeBron. Whichever team signs Junior will see its drivers become even better (and make no mistake, these guys are already at or near the top echelon). Earnhardt means more money for the organization, which means more testing, better equipment, better cars and better results. It also means an immediate bump in restrictor-plate performance, because Earnhardt will now be a drafting partner for three other lucky drivers. If Roush was the default fantasy team of 2005 ("when in doubt, start a Roushketeer"), and if Hendrick is the default fantasy team of today ("you can't go wrong with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch"), whoever signs Little E has an inside track on being that team in 2008 and beyond.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.