Loss of Junior partner leaves DEI in shambles

You know your racing team stinks when it gets caught using an illegal part that could have made your car run slower.

The timing of the announcement for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s exit strategy from the team his late father started was perfect. Had it been made after illicit parts were found on his car a week ago, the reasons given for his desired split with Dale Earnhardt Inc. would have been suspect.

DEI would be this year's Nextel Cup punch line if not for Michael Waltrip Racing's farcical season.

Junior doesn't deserve being the poster boy for a laughingstock operation. He still can wheel a race car; his two Busch series championships and 17 Cup victories weren't flukes.

His May 10 declaration of independence will make him a free agent after this season.

Junior asked for a couple of weeks of breathing room after his news conference to ponder his future. We are such an understanding, compassionate lot that his request for the moratorium seemed fair.

How much more could be written about racing's most popular driver anyway?

A lot, actually, especially because NASCAR this week heavily penalized his team, crew chief and Junior for unapproved parts detected before last weekend's Cup race in Darlington, S.C.

He and his team are right back in the cross hairs.

Junior and his team were punished severely for using the wrong brackets to affix the rear wing to his Car of Tomorrow Chevrolet at Darlington.

Junior was docked 100 championship points, which dropped him two spots to 14th in the standings.

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was slammed with a $100,000 fine and six-race suspension. Owner Teresa Earnhardt lost 100 championship points.

This time NASCAR found a black-and-white page in its rule book and then whipped out its paddle, the one with holes for better airflow when swinging.

Coincidentally, the illegal brackets were installed the day Junior was proclaiming his emancipation from DEI, and Eury, his cousin, was attending the announcement.

Junior's imminent departure from his stepmother's team probably sealed the DEI coffin, and this week's penalties dug its hole.

The unapproved parts were discovered in prerace inspection Saturday. Eury said use of the parts was an oversight and would not have produced a competitive advantage.

A first-rate team gets caught using an unapproved part that can only enhance performance.

Junior says he wants championships above all, and at 32 he believes those chances are dwindling.

He'll let DEI keep his hot-selling No. 8 when he leaves. Without him it's worthless anyway. Just like DEI. And a new digit or two for Junior will generate another $30 million or so in souvenir sales for him.

You can bet the famed No. 3 his dad drove for six of his seven championships won't adorn Junior's next car. And it shouldn't.

NASCAR should retire No. 3 and the No. 43 of seven-time champion Richard Petty and the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon once he retires. One standard for hanging a car number from the rafters should be a driver steering it to at least four Cup championships.

Number notwithstanding, Junior says he wants to remain with Chevrolet, which leaves Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Ginn Racing as front-runners.

Rule out resurgent Ginn Racing because it is at least two years from contending for a championship.

Hendrick already has a NASCAR-maximum four teams and three of the series' top drivers with Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. Loyalty is big at that shop, so the team probably wouldn't dump Casey Mears, who joined this season, to open a slot for Junior.

Were Junior to join Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin at Gibbs, that team would have a threesome as strong as Hendrick's top three. But team owner Joe Gibbs is too pious for Junior, a fun-loving free spirit with Budweiser sponsorship that would run afoul of Gibbs' Holy Roller beliefs.

Childress is the favorite. It's where Earnhardt Sr. won six of his seven championships and became a legend. And Richard Childress is the father figure Junior could use.

But don't be shocked if Teresa Earnhardt relents once accepting that, without her stepson, DEI is finished, and she offers the majority ownership he wants.

She's a sharp cookie, although at times she seems half-baked.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.