Fantasy Racing: Earnhardt joins the Yankees
There are only three Chevrolet megateams in Nextel Cup racing, so why are we so completely stunned that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has chosen one of them? I'll tell you why: because it came at the expense of Kyle Busch.
Junior and Hendrick Motorsports officially announced their union Wednesday morning, meaning the 2008 version of Hendrick will have more in common with the New York Yankees than with tank tops and tobacco juice. Let's take a look at the fantasy implications of this landscape-altering deal.
• Junior becomes an instant threat to win a title. It's tempting to get all clever and worry that Earnhardt will somehow struggle because he's third fiddle to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, but let's not overthink. To date, Busch has won four races, has made the Chase for the Cup in 2006, and is well on his way to repeating that feat here in '07. The No. 5 team is stout. It gets great equipment; it excels in the Car of Tomorrow; and all it really has needed is a guy who doesn't keep shearing sheet metal off its cars' side panels. (Remember back in Texas a couple of months back, when Busch stormed away after a wreck and Junior logged the race's final few laps in the No. 5?) I do think Hendrick's evident COT advantage will mostly have dissipated by '08, as more teams catch up in testing. But think about it: Do you want to be the driver who has to contend with this three-headed Hendrick draft monster at Daytona in February?
• Kyle Busch is a dangling man. During Wednesday's news conference, Rick Hendrick said he didn't expect Busch the Younger to go anywhere for the rest of 2007 despite rumors that Busch had been speaking with teams such as Ginn Racing about future employment. Hendrick made it sound as though this was Busch's decision, but frankly, that doesn't really matter. Busch is a lame duck who'll earn a lot of money as a headliner next season, but he inevitably will suffer a drop in car and program quality. Will he run for Ginn? Will he take Junior's spot at DEI? (I rather think not; I think that spot will be assumed by Greg Biffle.) Listen, Busch is a talented young dude, but he drives as if his hair's on fire from the first lap to the last (or until he crashes), and until he can learn not to force the issue every second of every race, he's not going to live up to his potential, fantasy or otherwise.
• Gordon might have just earned a reprieve. Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s legion of remaining fans (and it's a huge legion) has simply hated seeing Gordon pass the Dominator in career wins, and if you've ever seen video of the folks who throw stuff when Gordon hits Victory Lane, they're invariably wearing red No. 8 gear. But now that Junior has left the company his daddy founded to become Gordon's partner in crime, you have to believe at least some of the bitter Gordon hatred will abate. I'm guessing some Little E fans actually might turn their backs on Driver 8, so pure is their hatred for Gordon. But a greater number will curb their vitriol for the No. 24. I'm not sure whether that will make Gordon any more dominating than he has been in '07, but it couldn't hurt.
• Casey Mears just got a boost of confidence. If anyone was supposed to be out at Hendrick as a result of Junior's switch, it was supposed to be Mears. He was disappointing for Ganassi, and he started his first year with Hendrick by logging one finish better than 20th, and six starts worse than 30th, in his first 10 events. But Mears finally won his first Cup race on fuel mileage at Charlotte a few weeks back -- and ran very well at Pocono, too -- which not only adds to the No. 25's in-season confidence but also probably removed any last shred of doubt in Rick Hendrick's mind. Mears is calmer on the track than Busch, does fewer stupid things and is best friends with defending champ Johnson. His leash got longer, and he'll probably drive better as a result.
• Neither Earnhardt nor Busch is going to be completely focused for the rest of '07. It's human nature. Junior is leaving DEI in the hands of new wunderkind Martin Truex Jr., and both he and everyone on the current No. 8 team know it. Sure, most of his energy still will be fixed on making this season's Chase (and DEI reported that Junior will finish out the year as its top driver), but some lingering portion of his noodle already is picking out Hendrick-colored curtains. As for Busch? He's 22, already has proved extremely immature and basically just got fired (maybe). It's not as though he'll stop trying suddenly, not at all. In fact, he probably will press even harder, trying to prove that Hendrick is making a mistake and that he's worthy of a team-headlining deal somewhere else. Right now, Busch is 10th in points and Junior is 14th. If I had to make a prediction (and I'm by no means positive about this), I'd say neither will wind up making this year's Chase.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.