Inspectors find illegal part in Earnhardt’s car
By By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
DARLINGTON, S.C. — While Dale Earnhardt Jr. waited out the rain in his motorhome, NASCAR inspectors found an illegal part on his Chevrolet.
The rear wing on his Car of Tomorrow was mounted incorrectly, and NASCAR confiscated the brackets used to hold it in place during the pre-race inspection Saturday night at Darlington Raceway.
It was the first misstep this week for Junior, who dominated nearly every conversation in the garage during a heavy rain storm that delayed the race that was eventually postponed until Sunday at 1 p.m.
The same question was asked in every corner of the garage: What’s Junior going to do?
At least five car owners are officially interested, including newcomer Bobby Ginn, who promised to vigorously pursue NASCAR’s most popular driver to his upstart team.
Junior was silent Saturday, two days after announcing he would leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the season. It makes him the most coveted free agent in NASCAR history, but his options might actually be limited.
Ray Evernham said Saturday he wanted 15 minutes to talk with Earnhardt, but doubted it would get him anywhere.
Because Earnhardt wants to stay with a Chevrolet team, Dodge owners Evernham, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi know they don’t have much of a chance. But Evernham, who fields a red No. 9 for Kasey Kahne, thought he could make the loudest pitch among the Dodge camp.
Junior cited his desire to win a championship, and his belief that DEI is not currently capable of doing that, as his reason for leaving his late father’s team.
Three Chevrolet teams are believed to be the front-runners, and car owner Richard Childress has already expressed his interest. Hendrick Motorsports has been silent on the Junior debate, and Joe Gibbs Racing indicated it might not be a good fit for Earnhardt.
Although Earnhardt is close with JGR drivers Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, team president J.D Gibbs said they aren’t currently looking to expand to four teams. JGR also fields a car for J.J. Yeley.
And, the Gibbs’ focus on promoting a family values image would make it difficult to bring Budweiser on as a sponsor, he said. Budweiser, Earnhardt’s longtime sponsor, is expected to go with him wherever he lands.
Gibbs said the team has no immediate plans to pursue Earnhardt, but wouldn’t lock the door if the driver came knocking.
Earnhardt’s rivals are anxiously watching every development, knowing that his signing could start a domino effect.
Several other drivers have already been thrown into the rumor mill: Ryan Newman to JGR, David Gilliland to DEI, Yeley out at JGR, Martin Truex Jr. looking for an out at DEI. It doesn’t matter if none of its true — until Junior signs, the gossip will fly.
And as the car owners try to be tightlipped, only Ginn is strongly on record to be interested.
The Florida land developer bought a midlevel team last July and markedly improved it in just a few short months. Following an aggressive long-range plan, Ginn snagged Mark Martin and expanded the operation to three cars.
Then Martin nearly won the Daytona 500, while opening the season with the best start of his career.
He briefly led the points standings before bowing out on top. He’s running a partial schedule this season and is currently ranked 14th despite sitting out three of 10 races.
Existing drivers Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek have been considerably stronger this season, with Marlin as the only driver not ensured a spot in the field to qualify for the first five races of the year.
Ginn also beefed up his driver development package, where he’s tucked away 15-time motocross champion Ricky Carmichael.
The team leases its motors from Hendrick and is perceived to be a satellite of that powerful operation. It’s gotten Ginn mentioned as an outside equation in the Earnhardt race, but the team clearly wants to be a viable option.
Ginn thinks his team suits Earnhardt because he runs it like a family operation and would fit much of what Junior is looking for. Earnhardt ideally would like to complement JR Motorsports, the Busch Series operation he owns, with his next employer.
Dale Earnhardt followed that model by driving for Childress while developing DEI, and Ginn thinks Junior can do it with him.
Earnhardt reiterated Friday that he’s looking for a winner.
It’s why he’ll take some time away to decompress before he makes the next biggest decision in his life. He wants his next employer to be his last after six-plus seasons at his late father’s company. Junior has won 17 races at DEI, but the program has been on a slow decline since his father’s 2001 death.
Junior wanted 51 percent ownership to stay with the company, but stepmother Teresa wouldn’t turn over control. So he’s parting ways and should have no shortage of suitors.