Winning choice

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

It was the most public of shots in their long and tense relationship.

In a rare interview, Teresa Earnhardt didn't just call out Dale Earnhardt Jr. as his team owner, but delivered the maternal tsk, tsk of a stepmother.

"Right now the ball is in his court to decide whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or a public personality," Teresa told the Wall Street Journal last December.

Wednesday, in no uncertain terms, Dale Earnhardt Jr. responded.

He isn't just walking away from Dale Earnhardt Inc, his dad's old company now run by Teresa, for superficial reasons or personal fissures. He isn't going to a new place to advance his "public personality."

Dale Jr. is signing with Hendrick Motorsports, the best and most talent-rich team in NASCAR for a single reason – to win.

He isn't going there to have control, because he won't. He isn't going to a team where he is the most accomplished driver, because he isn't. He isn't going to a company that is desperate for his star power and revenue streams, because it's fine without him. He isn't going to somewhere he will be the undisputed center of attention, because he won't be.

He's going to a team that has won 10 of 14 races this year and six championships since 1995.

He's going to a place where the No. 1 driver, Jeff Gordon, has four Cup titles to his none, not to mention a fan base and fame level that almost can challenge his own. Teammate and defending Nextel Cup champ Jimmie Johnson has four victories this season alone, double Junior's humble two since 2005.

If he wanted to be a public personality or a team owner or a prima donna, he'd have signed elsewhere. If he feared head-to-head competition or the possibility of being proven a lesser driver than Gordon – they'll have essentially the same cars now – he'd have chosen another course.

If this was about fame or fortune or all the things Teresa Earnhardt was talking about, Junior wouldn't be going to Hendrick.

The truth is he needs Hendrick more than Hendrick needs him – no matter his overwhelming popularity, monster Budweiser sponsorship deal or multimillions in merchandise revenue. It may be the only NASCAR team that can say that.

Hendrick already has all that it needs. It's about winning at this point, about the constant pursuit of perfection.

In the end, when just about every team could offer the same incredible financial package, that had to have been the final, decisive point. He's already rich, he's already famous. But at Hendrick he can be a champion.

"Hopefully I can accomplish the things I want to accomplish and put on the show I think I can put on," Earnhardt said last month about what he sought out of a new team. "I feel over the last year or two I've short-changed my fans. They've been very loyal standing by me when we've been incapable of putting up results that we feel capable of.

"I'm hoping to win some races, win some championships to give those guys what they spend all their money for."

Hendrick offers the best cars (particularly the Car of Tomorrow), the most innovative engineering and the sharpest race strategy (witness Gordon's perfect run in the rain Sunday at Pocono).

It's a professional organization, about as button-down as NASCAR gets. This isn't the place Junior would go to slack or party or lack focus. He knows he'd be shown up in a second.

This is the baseball all-star signing with the New York Yankees, aligning himself with great talent in an effort to win a World Series, well aware he's just another cog in the machine, never to be more popular than Derek Jeter, let alone all the past greats.

Of course, the idea that Earnhardt Jr. – with his famous name, thick accent and hard-charging style the epitome of old-school NASCAR – would wind up teaming with Gordon – the poster child of the new growth of the sport – is a bit jarring.

For so long to cheer for Junior was to boo Gordon. And now?

Junior has spoken. It isn't about perceived rifts or stereotypes. It isn't about who will up his star wattage or pump his ego. This is about driving, about winning, about taking the championships that the 32-year-old believes he has in him. This is about no more year-plus droughts.

Teresa Earnhardt wondered about her stepson's priorities, publicly questioned her cash machine employee, dared him to respond.

Now he has. Now he walks. Now the answer is oh-so clear.