For fans of Earnhardt, ride could turn bumpy

The Baltimore Sun

For Earnhardt fans, today's expected announcement that Dale Jr. will drive for Hendrick Motor- sports next year is the worst of all worlds.

And those Earnhardt fans aren't necessarily the ones who root for Junior's red No. 8 Chevy, but rather the folks who still hold his father's black No. 3 close in their hearts.

Hendrick Motorsports counts among its stable of drivers defending Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, the villain to many - if not the vast majority - of the diehard Earnhardt faithful in the weekly NASCAR soap opera.

It was Gordon who was among Dale Sr.'s most persistent and annoying foils before Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in 2001. And it was Gordon who eventually passed Dale Sr.'s number of Cup wins, 76, and did it at, of all places, Talladega, where Dale Sr. is revered.

After the race, Gordon was quoted as saying that the only marks on his car were from beer cans thrown at it by irate Earnhardt fans.

And so it will be a bitter pill, indeed, for the Earnhardt crowd to see Dale Jr. and Gordon racing on the same team. Sources told the Associated Press that Earnhardt will join Hendrick. He may replace Kyle Busch in the No. 5 Chevy.

Not so unlike Boston baseball fans watching outfielder Johnny Damon - soon after the Red Sox finally won a world championship - defect to the hated Yankees (following the example, by the way, of Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs).

Tim Brewer, a former crew chief of Junior Johnson's who won two NASCAR championships with Johnson and is now an ESPN analyst, calls this a gutsy move for Dale Jr., regardless of the issues of loyalty to the Dale Earnhardt Inc. brand, family legacy and even fan dislike of Gordon.

"It took a lot of guts for Dale Jr. to say, 'I'm leaving,' but he did it," Brewer said. "Look, whatever Dale Jr. has been doing hasn't been working and whatever Rick Hendrick has been doing has been working. If I'm Dale Jr., I just show up and say, 'Mr. Hendrick, what car do you want me to drive?'

"There will be some of those fans who see that Dale Jr. left DEI and now he's a traitor, but it will be a small percentage."

While fans may fall in love with their hometown sports heroes, financial realities - and the knowledge that team management will discard a player at the earliest sign of fading skills - mean that even all-time franchise treasures can wind up moving on to the unlikeliest of rivals.

In the cases of Dale Jr. and Damon, it was the sports star's choice to cross over. Dale Jr. felt the DEI race team that was controlled by his stepmother, Teresa, wasn't allowing him to be competitive enough to have a shot at a Nextel Cup title. Damon went to the Bronx as a big-money free agent.

Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver in NFL history, rewrote the record books with San Francisco. But after the 49ers decided that the aging future Hall of Famer wasn't worth the big bucks he wanted, Rice signed as a free agent with cross-Bay rival Oakland, where he caught 243 more passes and helped the Raiders to a Super Bowl.

Certainly not as dominant in his sport but a solid player nevertheless and plenty colorful was Dennis Rodman, a key figure in the Detroit Pistons' Bad Boys championship years who went to San Antonio for two seasons before becoming a fixture on the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. In that case, it was probably the best environment possible for Rodman because in Chicago, Jordan and coach Phil Jackson were able to keep his erratic behavior somewhat in check.

Perhaps lost in the memory of current sports fans is one of the most shocking crossovers of all time - that of Leo Durocher, who went from managing the Brooklyn Dodgers to taking over the New York Giants in 1948. In the history of American sport, no rivalry was any more rancorous than the one between the Dodgers and Giants when they were on the East Coast, and Durocher bled Dodger blue long before Tom Lasorda. But it was Durocher who gleefully celebrated as the Giants manager after Bobby Thomson's historic blow in 1951 that haunted a generation of Dodgers rooters for decades.

However, there have been some sports figures where loyalty was measured not in dollars or even in ego. At age 37, after changing forever the dialogue in America about race, Jackie Robinson, a Brooklyn Dodgers hero, chose to retire after the 1956 season rather than report to the team to which he had just been traded - the New York Giants.

Sun reporters Ken Murray and Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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