Sunday, May 27, 2007

Charting The Earnhardt Derby: Gibbs' Stock Falls, Ginn On The Rise

Joe Gibbs said last night that if Dale Earnhardt, Jr., joins his team next season, it will have to be without his longtime sponsor, Budweiser.

"For me personally, (with) my background and everything that has happened to me, it wouldn't fit me," said Gibbs at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. It doesn't mean it's not fine for everybody else."

There are other stumbling blocks to an Earnhardt-Gibs partnership, as well. Team spokesmen say the longtime Washington Redskins coach has no interest in expanding to four teams next season, meaning that one of his three current drivers would have to be released. Two-time Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart is considered untouchable, and 2006 Raybestos Rookie of the Year Denny Hamlin is not going anywhere, either. That leaves former USAC star J.J. Yeley, who coincidentally is in the final year of his contract with JGR.

Team President J.D. Gibbs stopped short of saying Yeley’s job is in jeopardy, but made it clear that he wants more out of Yeley than his current 20th-place points standing. "We have invested in J.J. for years, and for him to be successful would be awesome. Nobody wants to see J.J. succeed more than we do. We went to J.J. and said, 'No matter what happens, if we go out there and we run well together, you're here forever.'"

With both Gibbs and Hendrick Motorsports now presumed to be out of the Earnhardt Derby, increased attention is being focused on the two remaining contenders; Richard Childress and Bobby Ginn. Childress said recently that he has not spoken with Earnhardt since Junior’s recent announcement that he will leave Dale Earnhardt, Inc., at the end of the season. He told reporters yesterday that he will expand to four cars next season; with or without Earnhardt.

"Our plan was to always be at four next season,” said Childress. “That's something we had in the works way before Junior became available. Who knows who will drive it? I might just have to dust off my helmet."

Ginn has pursued NASCAR’s most popular driver more openly, announcing plans of his own to expand to four teams next season, and having what he called, "exploratory conversations" with Kelley Earnhardt Elledge. Ginn Racing General Manager Jay Frye has longstanding ties with Anheuser-Busch (parent company of Budweiser), and yesterday, Ginn made it clear that he is serious about adding Earnhardt to his stable.

"If I had no ability to do it, I wouldn't have embarrassed myself or wasted his time," he said. "I believe he wants to win, and I want to win. You put two people together that are damned determined to get there, (and) that's a combination that has generally led to success. You can build great cars and have great teams, but you've got to have that spark plug.”

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