Junior's impending exit no hindrance to DEI

I knew doom would come to Dale Earnhardt Inc. once Junior said he would leave the team his daddy started and stepmother runs.

How could it survive without the most popular driver in American racing?

I sure hit that nail on the head. Or something hit me on the head.

Wrong again.

Not since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was regularly winning races for DEI a few years ago has the team enjoyed so much success. Its No. 2 driver, Martin Truex Jr., posted his first Cup victory two weeks after Earnhardt's May 10 farewell address. And Truex has added four top-five finishes since that win.

After my premature and incorrect prediction of DEI's imminent demise, the company has been at its best since Junior won six races in 2004.

DEI also seems to have invested more in the team's future than it had over the eight years Junior has raced there. Over the past two months DEI has entered into an engine development program with Richard Childress Racing and created a separate team for testing.

The biggest shock came Wednesday when it became official that DEI was merging with Ginn Racing, a week after Ginn released veteran drivers Joe Nemechek and Sterling Marlin.

Ginn now is a partner in the expanded and vastly improved DEI, which is the banner the operation will fly.

At Indianapolis this weekend, short-timer Earnhardt, Truex and Paul Menard of DEI will be teammates for the first time with Ginn's Mark Martin. Martin and Aric Almirola will continue to share driving duties in the No. 01 in the Cup series this year and next.

Merger negotiations could not have started that long ago. Resort magnate Bobby Ginn, a rookie Cup team owner, was one of the first announcing a desire to hire Junior.

"We would stretch as hard as we could stretch to do it," Ginn told The Associated Press on May 12. "You want the best, the absolute best, and I love the idea that Dale wants to win championships. He could accomplish that here with us."

How could Ginn have considered that if he was trying to team up with DEI?

Had Junior opted to sign with Ginn instead of Hendrick Motorsports, the affable redhead might be on suicide watch today or applying for a job in the Champ Car World Series. He must be getting chills thinking he could have been working past this year for stepmother Teresa Earnhardt.

Junior is in a perfect place for 2008. Not only will he be racing for what currently is the best team in NASCAR, but he might be the first driver to own his licensing rights after this season. His JR Motorsports will receive the biggest cut of revenue from sales of merchandise and apparel utilizing his name or image.

He certainly has no regrets.

Neither does the new DEI-Ginn team.

DEI will benefit from use of Ginn's newer, bigger race shop with more modern equipment than DEI had.

Each of Ginn's three cars are in the top 35 in points and would be ensured starting positions in Sunday's Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The top 35 in season points get free rides into the starting field of 43.

Menard, who was 38th in points for DEI, will benefit from inheriting 29th-place points from Ginn's No. 14, which Marlin had driven. Points held by Ginn's No. 13, which was driven by Nemechek and ranks 33rd, will fall to the wayside because new Cup operations are limited to four teams.

The losers in this transaction are Marlin, Nemechek and perhaps Ginn rookie Regan Smith, who drove in five races this year sharing the No. 01 with Martin and was to take over when Martin retired. Now it doesn't appear that Smith has a Cup riding waiting.

Almirola is Martin's new backup after leaving Joe Gibbs Racing a couple of weeks ago to sign with Ginn.

Marlin, 50, and Nemechek, 44, are under contract with Ginn but without rides.

This confusing round of musical cockpits could benefit Las Vegas native Kyle Busch.

At the end of this season Earnhardt's No. 8 will have an empty seat, and it has been speculated DEI, Childress, Gibbs and Evernham Motorsports are on Busch's short list since he became a free agent when Hendrick hired Earnhardt.

The overnight elevation of DEI probably has caught Busch's attention, and one of his biggest fans among Cup drivers has been Martin, who would be the perfect role model for the outspoken 22-year-old.

Based on my track record for prognosticating, though, don't expect my thoughts on where Busch will land.

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