Kyle Busch vs. Dale Earnhardt Jr: Who would you hire?
In the red corner: A veteran driver who has one of the biggest collection of fans in all of sports, but has failed to lived up to his last name or potential in the past decade. He is a cash cow, guaranteed to make your organization much richer, but probably won’t take you to Victory Lane very often. He also comes packaged with a controversial cousin/crew chief who many people believe isn‘t up to the job.
This rivalry was set up when Dale Earnhardt Jr. replaced Kyle Busch at Hendrick Motorsports. It was rekindled a couple weeks ago when Busch made some comments about how the media always focuses on one guy who doesn’t seem to win a lot (hmmm … I wonder who that could be).
When looking at the stat line, the initial answer to the “who would you hire?” question comes quickly: Kyle Busch is the better option because he wins so much, and that’s what matters most. But as always, there’s a subtext to every debate. You have to take into account the driver as a person, as you’ll have to deal with him on a daily basis.
Over the past month, Kyle Busch has shown on several occasions that despite being the greatest winning machine in NASCAR since Jeff Gordon in the 1990s, he is the textbook definition of a sore loser.
First, he literally told his pit crew “Y’all suck!!” after they botched a pit stop that cost him a Nationwide series win. Then, in the Truck series race on Monday, after another legitimate penalty (of his own doing) cost him the race, he slammed his gear into the Truck, ran down the entire length of pit road, ran across the track and over a wall. I’m guessing someone picked him up in the parking lot.
No one doubts his talent, but episodes like these make him appear like a little child. Little Kyle cries when he doesn’t get his way and fails to win every single race in all three series. Last fall, when he got a terrible start to the Chase due to a team error, he basically threw his team under the bus for their mistakes and gave up. In Kyle Busch’s world, there is an “I” in the word “team”.
But then again, he does win a large portion of the races he enters, so despite all his character flaws I would most definitely want the young tantrum-thrower on my team, despite all the trouble it might cause and how many egos might be bruised.
Meanwhile, there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., a man 10 years into his Cup career who has yet to see the success many anticipated. He has the name, but with the exception of a few years at DEI, he has never been in the top level of championship-caliber drivers.
Still, many say the doubters are wrong and Jr. will emerge as a champion soon enough and prove the haters wrong. They argue that once Jr. settles in at the powerhouse Hendrick team, within the next couple years, he will start running up front with his teammates Gordon and Johnson each week. Waiting on this to happen is much wiser than forcing yourself to deal with the emotional roller coaster that is Kyle Busch, they say. And to some extent, they are right.
Then of course there’s the name, and all the money that comes with it. I fully believe that if Jr. were running 43rd every week, he’d still have plenty of sponsors and more fans than any other driver on the track each week. His name is so big that having him on your team is like having a constantly refilling pot of gold in the garage stall. In these tough economic times, it would be very hard for a car owner to turn down that kind of financial opportunity.
While many would argue Jr. is behind Busch in the talent department, it’s also true that the kind of money Jr. rakes in for a team can buy a lot of really good cars and employees, which can make up some of that talent gap if you figure out something the other teams don’t know about how to run faster.
Of all the car owners in NASCAR, Rick Hendrick is the most likely to be very patient with Jr. He has won so many championships that his record won’t be tarnished if Jr. never claims a title or a bunch more wins. I actually believe Hendrick is not regretting his decision to replace Kyle with Dale Jr., as they seem to have a really good relationship (something that probably wasn’t as true with him and Kyle).
But deep down, Hendrick has to be thinking about what could have been if Kyle had stayed and let his talent blossom at Hendrick. Between Johnson, Gordon and Busch all at their best, the team would have been nearly unbeatable each week.