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Archive for Friday, May 11, 2007

Commentary: Little E’s decision drips with sadness

May 11, 2007

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— Fans show up more than two hours before Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 11 a.m. EDT news conference Thursday, and when it ends a few minutes before noon, 50 fans still wait outside.

Most want to hear the news behind the news conference, they hope from Junior. One woman comes to take a picture of Junior for a friend. Grown women often say the picture is for a friend.

Forty cars line one side of Cayuga Drive, the narrow road that leads to JR Motorsports. Two Mooresville police officers, one the size of a TV truck, guard the doors to Junior's shop. Beyond the guards are members of the media, who fill 3 1/2 rows of chairs, 12 chairs to a row. Cameramen stand in back, and photographers and reporters form a U around the chairs.

Nobody else in racing could attract such a crowd on such short notice. Going to the shop to see Junior is like going to the first tee to see Tiger Woods.

There is a vast difference between the two men, however. Tiger is the PGA's best and most popular golfer. Junior is Nextel Cup's most popular driver.

Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson have attained much more success. Junior burns to join them and, once he joins them, he burns to beat them. His team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., no longer is capable of putting him in position to do it.

Or maybe Junior isn't capable of putting DEI in position to do it. Is the problem the employer with the famous name or the employee with the famous name? Next season, we'll begin to find out.

Junior has a theory about how to succeed and DEI has another. Junior tried to acquire 51 percent so he could impose his philosophy and never came close. So he announced Thursday that he will leave after the season.

The split will be awkward and it could be nasty. If it does, the fight won't be fair, at least not in the forum of public opinion. Junior is gracious. You would have to work to dislike the man.

His stepmother, Teresa, who runs DEI, is not quite as warm. When she walks into a room, the temperature usually drops 10 to 15 degrees.

Teresa almost never consents to interviews, and on Thursday she released a statement saying: "This company has a great legacy and a bright future, built on loyalty, integrity and commitment."

Ouch.

Junior was committed to DEI and he is committed to winning. If, at 32, he no longer believes he can win with a team that he doesn't control, what's he supposed to do?

The goodbye was long and painful and appeared to include loyalty. Junior talked for about five minutes to 400 DEI employees in the company's showroom at about 8:30 a.m. and then met with his team in the break room of his shop. About 30 of them were there, and they talked about 15 minutes. It was emotional. Junior didn't crack, but he came close.

His news conference was devoid of joy. When he looked out from the platform where he sat he did not see the great future he anticipates. He saw the past. He saw the folks with whom he has won and lost and suffered and sweated, some of whom he will never work with again.

I've attended at least 10 news conferences at which a coach was fired, and none were as sad as this one.

When the season ends, Junior will become the most sought after free agent in his sport's history, and all that money and all those opportunities and did you see any glee?

We talk about how different Dale Sr. and Dale Jr. are. Senior was genuine. He remembered where he grew up and how, and he carried it with him.

Junior genuinely wants to win a championship. And he genuinely hurts because so many of the folks with whom he has grown up in racing won't be there to join him.

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