When Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced a couple of weeks ago that he would be retiring at the end of this season, all eyes immediately looked to his owner Rick Hendrick and how he would ever replace the most popular driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup. During his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Jr. has yet to win a title but he has posted wins all while being the face of the sport, a position that was thrust upon him after his father passed away in 2001 in the Daytona 500.
Hendrick’s replacing of an icon in the sport is nothing new to him as he had to replace Jeff Gordon after the 2015 season with rookie Chase Elliott and that has become one of the more successful teams in the sport this season. This time around, there might not be as many candidates that were attractive as Elliott when he made that decision.
There are always two schools of thought when an owner is looking for a new driver. You can go with a younger guy that may not have the experience you would like at the Cup level or you can try and pry a veteran away from another organization. When Hendrick hired Elliott, he had no Cup experience but had won an Xfinity Championship driving for Dale Jr.’s JR Motorsports.
Hendrick could look within his organization for a couple of options to fill the seat as he has two very talented young drivers under contract that are not in the Cup series this season. William Byron turned the heads of every owner in the sport last season after capturing seven wins in the Camping World Truck Series. He signed a multi-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports in August of 2106 which included a full-time Xfinity Series ride with JR Motorsports this season. This choice would definitely be a youth movement as Byron will not turn 20 until November.
There is another option with Cup experience if Hendrick decides to promote from within the organization. Last season when Dale Jr. had to get out of his car because of complications from a concussion, Alex Bowman filled in for 10 of the 18 races. He sat on the pole at Phoenix and had a 19.7 finishing average but under the circumstances the driver received raves about taking over under such tough circumstances. Bowman doesn’t have a full-time ride this season as Hendrick did not have a seat for him, but he remains busy with occasional starts in the Xfinity Series and continues to put in the hours in Hendrick’s race simulator.
Now there is always the chance that Hendrick would like to put a more experienced driver who has proven himself capable of winning and competing for championships in the soon-to-be-vacant seat. While there are plenty of drivers in the sport that would fit the criteria, the majority of those are still under contract with their owners for next season.
The name that began circulating almost before Dale Jr. walked off the podium from announcing his retirement was Carl Edwards. The former Joe Gibbs Racing driver surprised everybody when he announced just before the season that he was going to leave the sport. The way that he worded his speech the day he announced that he would not be back in 2017 left everyone thinking that his departure might not be permanent.
Edwards would become an instant contender if he crawls into Jr.’s seat as he has been through the pressure-packed Chase several times and has finished as high as second. He would also bring a loyal following of fans that have been with him since he started in the sport driving for Roush Fenway.
Rick Hendrick has 12 Monster Energy Cup titles because he knows talent behind the wheel and gives them the equipment to be successful. It will be a tough decision but whoever he chooses to take over this ride is going to be getting a golden opportunity.
Event: Go Bowling 500
Track: Kansas Speedway (1.5- mile quad-oval, 17o-20o variable banking in the turns)
Date: May 13, 7:30 p.m.
Defending Race Winner: Kyle Busch