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Analysis: DEI, RCR merging engine programs

By BRANT JAMES
Published May 19, 2007


Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a week left in his self-awarded mental break before huddling with his sister and business manager, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, to gauge teams' interest.

But Friday's news that his current and soon-to-be-former team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., and what many assumed to be his next team, Richard Childress Racing, have formed an engine-building alliance only confuses the matter further.

DEI and RCR said in a release that a "permanent stand-alone facility located between RCR and DEI will begin later this summer with completion expected by mid-2008." Work will be divided between the teams' shops until then. The teams are expected to run their first common engine at the July 7 Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Fenway Roush and Robert Yates teams formed a similar alliance in 2005.

"With the direction this sport has taken over the last few years, Teresa Earnhardt and I began talking about ways we could partner together to gain a competitive advantage and, at the same time, expand our resources, " Childress said in a release.

Both teams benefited from an aerodynamic consortium they formed in the 1990s. Dale Earnhardt Sr. amassed 11 restrictor plate track wins from 1997-2000, while his son had seven and DEI teammate Michael Waltrip four.

"Richard and I both have committed substantial resources to this new company and we share the No. 1 priority to win championships, " Teresa Earnhardt said in a statement.

Earnhardt-Childress Racing Technologies should improve the competitiveness of DEI, especially since the motor program has faltered in recent years, coinciding with Eanrhardt Jr.'s downturn in performance. Richie Gilmore, DEI's motorsports director, will oversee the merged program. He was in charge of the engine shop when DEI was at its best.

The question is, does this union eliminate RCR, where Dale Earnhardt Sr. won 67 races and six championships, as Earnhardt Jr.'s potential new employer?

Earnhardt Jr.'s stated reason for leaving DEI was to become a contender. RCR can make him one. The three-car team put Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton in the Chase for the Championship last year and the duo has two of the three wins this season by non-Hendrick Motorsports drivers. Earnhardt Jr.'s chilly relationship with Teresa Earnhardt played into the decision, too, but both sides called for reconciliation and future involvement by the children in DEI.

In effect, Earnhardt Jr. leaving DEI for RCR would be akin to moving out of the family home and in with a favorite uncle. Is that the perfect amount of distance?

Earnhardt Jr. wouldn't reveal who he has spoken to so far and said early discussions had yet to produce a clear favorite. But he said the merger would not impact his decision.

"That's a great move, " he told ESPN.com. "I was telling Richie [Gilmore] this time a year ago that if Chevy teams all consolidated to one program it would cut the costs tremendously. ... It's an awesome idea."

He said he's been surprised at how nice the owners have been.

"Some of these people actually just want you to be happy, which is awesome, " he said ""It's been a long time since somebody's actually talked to (me) like that."

Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick has yet to address his interest in Earnhardt Jr., though vice president of competition Ken Howes said last week that the team was "not looking." Already at NASCAR's four-driver limit, it would have to farm either Earnhardt or one of its current drivers, presumably the struggling Casey Mears, to a satellite team. Moving Mears, in his first year with the team, would be a drastic move with implications on team chemistry as he is friends with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. The owner has a long relationship with Mears and according to Mears, assured him his job will not be in jeopardy this year.

Team owner Bobby Ginn, founder of a Celebration-based real estate development company, has also vowed to make a pitch. Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs was noncommittal, but Earnhardt Jr.'s Budweiser sponsor presents some moral issues for his organization.

Roger Penske wants to talk, but his team uses Dodges and Earnhardt has stated his loyalty to Chevrolet. Also, Penske's No. 2, driven by Kurt Busch, is sponsored by Miller Brewing.

"We have not eliminated any options at this point, " Elledge told The Associated Press.

Earnhardt could run for a smaller team as a satellite of a larger one. Gibbs has an engine deal and ties with Hall of Fame Racing. Hendrick leases engines to several teams.

HOF competition director Phillipe Lopez called his team the "most logical satellite deal" for the son of the man who hand-picked him as DEI's first Cup employee in 1997. JGR provides engines, gears, transmissions, builds the chassis and hangs bodies for the second-year, single-car operation owned by former Dallas Cowboys Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. Lopez said his team hopes to get to three cars as soon as possible.

"If Joe Gibbs Racing equipment was attractive and would be the thing Junior would want, us being a satellite would take care of the sponsor issue, and everyone is happy, " said Lopez, who has not spoken with Earnhardt or Gibbs about the matter. "We know we're a way long shot, but anything can be structured to make it advantageous for everyone. ... Anything is possible in this sport."

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.