Jayski is reporting via ESPN.com, Rick Hendrick said that he’s finalizing a deal that would keep Dale Earnhardt Jr with Hendrick Motorsports for the next three to five years. This deal has been in the works for six months. Hendrick, however, doesn’t know when an announcement will be made. Earnhardt Jr is said to want to keep it low-key.
Reaction to this news is sure to be mixed. While some Earnhardt Jr fans want him stay with HMS because they think it gives him a better shot to win the Sprint Cup championship, others think that Hendrick is more interested in the money and sponsors Earnhardt brings in than he is in giving him the tools needed to win races and championships.
I don’t think an extension makes sense for Earnhardt Jr considering his contract ends after next season. The pairing of Earnhardt Jr with Steve Letarte has improved Earnhardt’s on-track performance, and seems to have shown that Hendrick does indeed want Earnhardt to succeed in his equipment. Some conspiracy theorists may argue that Hendrick wants Jr to re-sign with the team, and is therefore putting him in better equipment, but I’m not sure I buy that.
If you look at the seats available after the 2012 season, the pickings are slim. The end of Denny Hamlin’s contract is unknown, but it runs through at least this year, and most likely next year. Even if Hamlin’s contract ends after the 2012 season, it’s unlikely he would leave Joe Gibbs Racing. And, it’s not a Chevy team.
Matt Kenseth’s contract may end after the 2012 season. If Carl Edwards leaves Roush Fenway Racing for JGR after this season, Kenseth could possibly follow suit, seeking another opportunity for the 2013 season. But RFR has Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr waiting in the wings, so the No. 17 probably wouldn’t be available. Plus, it’s not a Chevy team.
Martin Truex Jr’s contract may be up for renewal in 2012. If it is, he may seek another opportunity if he feels like the team is not performing. Michael Waltrip Racing is signed with Toyota through 2012, so they could (hypothetically) change makes to Chevy, but it is unlikely that Earnhardt Jr would want to go there with the way the team has been performing. Also, there’s no reason to think MWR would switch to Chevy from Toyota.
If Red Bull Racing leaves as expected, any new entity could have a seat available for Earnhardt Jr. It’s unclear if the team would stay with Toyota through the 2012 season, but it is a possibility. Even if the team were to switch makes, Earnhardt Jr still is not likely to want to run with a team that is just starting out. That would make it more difficult for him to contend with a championship. And, with the last couple of years he has had, I’m sure he wants to be in highly competitive equipment.
Stewart Haas Racing could be thinking of expanding to three or four cars by the end of 2012, which would give Earnhardt the option to go there. But, that team has been struggling of late and Earnhardt probably doesn’t want to wait and see if they improve.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing may or may not be an option. Earnhardt could return to his former team (then Dale Earnhardt Inc) and possibly run the No. 8 he helped make famous. But, that is highly unlikely given the rocky working relationship he had with team co-owner Teresa Earnhardt, his stepmother.
Richard Childress Racing won’t have an opening when Earnhardt Jr’s contract is up, though with their performance of late he would probably seriously consider going there. Paul Menard is signed through 2013, and Jeff Burton’s contract runs through 2014. Clint Bowyer is on the verge of re-signing with RCR and it is likely to be a three-year deal. Kevin Harvick’s contract runs through at least 2012, but if it expires that year, he will be signed to an extension long before that. He has been carring the banner for RCR the last two years so they won’t let him get away.
Plus, a move to RCR would further intensify the pressure Earnhardt is under to win a championship because it was his father’s team. I don’t think he wants that… at least not yet.
Another option would be bringing JR Motorsports to the Sprint Cup level. All indications at this point are that he doesn’t want to do that. I don’t think he wants to headache of running his own team at this time. Three to five years from now, it may be a different story. But for right now, I think he just wants to drive.
So, when you look at all the options out there when his contract expires, it makes sense for Earnhardt Jr to stay with HMS because it is the best Chevy seat available.