Junior's tug-of-war

DEAN MCNULTY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:27 AM ET

There was an interesting column the other day on nascar.com by Duane Cross, that essentially dealt with the struggles -- both on and off the track -- of Dale Earnhardt Jr., undeniably the biggest star in the sport.

It talked about how conflicted Junior is about being what he is -- the run-away, most popular driver in NASCAR who can't seem to win or even compete these days-- in stock car racing's top division.

On the same web page -- in fact adjacent to the Cross piece -- was a link to a vendor selling just about anything with Junior's mug or the image of his Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet attached.

Certainly Cross wouldn't have had any part of the decision to place that advertisement, but by its very juxtaposition it validated everything he was writing.

Earnhardt quickly is becoming the Shakespearean tragic hero who wears an ill-fitting crown in a kingdom where all of his loyal subjects demand more than he can deliver.

Cross points out that maybe Teresa Earnhardt was right when she said three seasons ago that Junior "has to decide on whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or whether he wants to be a public personality."

On the same day that the Cross column appeared, another NASCAR beat writer -- Goodwin Kelly, of the Daytona Beach News Journal -- opined that Junior's salvation could be at Richard Childress Racing, his late father's old team.

The rumour going around has Kevin Harvick -- who took over the No. 3 RCR team after Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona in 2001 -- leaving the team after the 2010 season, opening a spot for Junior to jump in as his contract at Hendrick expires after 2010 as well.

But watching how Junior has had to survive under the media glare these past nine years at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and then Hendrick Motorsports, it doesn't seem likely that he would want to step right into his dad's iconic black Chevrolet.

It might make a wonderful made-for-TV movie, but it could, just as surely, prove to be another but another disappointing juxtaposition for Junior's career.

Finn finished?

Sometimes we expect more of race car drivers. Then they open their mouths and we are almost always disappointed.

That was the case recently with Kimi Raikkonen, a former Formula One world champion, who has been told his services will no longer be required at Ferarri next season.

Speculation has the Finnish native going to the under-performing Toyota team, but that deal has yet to be consummated and there doesn't appear to be a lineup by the other big teams -- McLaren, Brawn or Red Bull -- to sign him to a contract.

In his position, one would assume Raikkonen would welcome any deal that could pay him near the millions he earned at Ferarri. But when he was asked by an Associated Press writer about the possibility of racing in NASCAR with fellow former F-1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya, Raikkonen all but laughed out loud at the idea.

"I do what I want with my life," he said.

"I could race there (in NASCAR) if I wanted but I'm not one of the biggest fans of NASCAR."

NASCAR team owners should remember that response when Raikkonen inexorably ends up seeking a job with them when no other offers are coming his way.

Cleared again

Once more -- for the fourth consecutive race -- NASCAR officials impounded the No. 48 and No. 5 Chevrolets of Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin -- after the Bank of America 400 at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Saturday night.

Both cars, along with the No. 16 Ford of Greg Biffle, cleared inspection.

NASCAR makes a big deal out of the thoroughness of its pre-race inspection process, and in fact, most of the teams caught cheating are nabbed in that scrutiny.

But one thing appears certain, the impounding of the two Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets week after week must give the real cheaters a sense of confidence that their cars won't be put under the microscope that seems dedicated solely to the No. 48 and No. 5.

The Jacques legacy

The fall from grace of Jacques Villeneuve after he won his world championship in 1997 with Williams has become the anti standard for young drivers in F-1.

Villeneuve turned his championship into a multi-year $100-million US deal with Honda and British American Racing, ensuring he would be a rich man for the rest of his life.

However, in the process he gave up any chance of winning again.

New champion Jenson Button isn't about to make the Jacques' mistake. Button told reporters this week he is ready to re-sign with Brawn GT.

"I'm most interested in being in a competitive car in which I can (win)," Button said. "I'm not going to look for another team just because they say they'll pay me a load of money. I want to be with Brawn, we've not discussed a contract yet and it was right not to do so because we had to focus on winning a world championship. Now we can discuss it in a few days. I'm certainly going to put some pressure on them, but I'm not that expensive."

DEAN.MCNULTY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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