Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NextelCup [Print without images]

Monday, April 16, 2007
Updated: April 17, 6:44 PM ET
Dale Jr.'s decision to drive the No. 5 scrutinized

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- For the record, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not signed a new deal with Hendrick Motorsports.

Believe it or not, some people e-mailed to ask that question after Earnhardt jumped in Kyle Busch's car at the end of the Samsung 500.

Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
When Kyle Busch, left, was nowhere to be found, Dale Earnhardt Jr. jumped into the No. 5 to finish the Samsung 500.

The reaction at the track was pretty simple: "Whaaaaat?"

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision by Earnhardt, but was it the right thing to do?

Some fans will see it as a sportsmanlike gesture to help a friend. Others will say it was a crazy risk for someone who isn't a teammate.

Was Tom Cruise not available? This was "Days of Thunder" in the real world.

Earnhardt, who was out of the race after his car was involved in an earlier wreck, got in Busch's car for the final nine laps at Texas Motor Speedway.

The extra laps enabled Busch to finish one spot higher than his teammate, Jimmie Johnson. They also added three points to Busch's season total.

"It don't matter," Earnhardt said of the points. "I was glad to do it."

It could matter if Busch finishes in the 12th and final qualifying spot for the Chase, three points ahead of Earnhardt.

Yes, it's an unlikely scenario, but it still was a bizarre decision by Earnhardt.

Adding to the oddity was that Earnhardt was helping the driver who wrecked him.

Busch plowed into the back of Earnhardt's car after Tony Stewart spun in front of them. No hard feelings, obviously.

Thousands of Earnhardt fans missed the fill-in role for their hero. When Earnhardt was involved in the accident, many folks in red No. 8 shirts headed for the exits.

Getting in the car of Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Martin Truex Jr. or Paul Menard is one thing. Getting in the car of a rival team owner is entirely different.

Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter isn't going to switch dugouts and take a few swings for Texas Rangers shortstop Michael Young in the ninth inning.

At least Earnhardt stuck with the same manufacturer in Busch's No. 5 Chevrolet. It also was a lucky break that Busch's car didn't have the usual Kellogg's corn flakes logo on the hood of the Monte Carlo.

For a product that essentially is a cereal for children, having a guy hop in and out of the car in a Budweiser fire suit probably isn't a good idea.

Earnhardt said he simply wanted to help a friend, No. 5 jack man Rick Pigeon.

"Pig is my buddy, and I have a couple other friends on that team," Earnhardt said. "They asked me to do it, so I wasn't going to say no."

Earnhardt said he got the green light to drive Busch's car from his own crew chief, Tony Eury Jr.

Why Busch got out of the car remains a little puzzling. Crew chief Alan Gustafson called it a miscommunication, with Busch thinking the team wasn't going to try to return to the race.

Busch was complaining of back pain during the race. No doubt Rick Hendrick will talk to his driver and the No. 5 team to figure out exactly what happened.

"I'm a little shocked. Dale drives for DEI and he had a bad day. I would've thought he'd be the one to go home."
-- Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon, Busch's teammate, also found the switch tough to explain.

"I'm a little shocked," Gordon said. "Dale drives for DEI and he had a bad day. I would've thought he'd be the one to go home."

Earnhardt was asked how Busch's car drove: "Like it was wrecked," he said.

So why did he do it?

"I'll always jump at a chance to climb into someone else's car to see what it's like," he said. "They used to do that all the time back in the day. You'd have relief drivers getting into someone's car almost every week, so it was kind of a step back into NASCAR history or something."

A driver subbing for another driver isn't new in NASCAR. Many times a driver with an injury has started a race (which guarantees he will get the points for that event), then gotten out of the car on the first pit stop and allowed someone else to finish.

Occasionally a driver gets sick during a race and feels he can't continue. Someone comes in to replace him, but usually it's a teammate or someone in another series who wasn't competing in the event.

Strange as this was, it also wasn't the first time a driver helped out someone on another team. But this is NASCAR's biggest star getting in someone else's car.

What if Earnhardt had suffered an injury in Busch's car? How would Earnhardt's fans feel about that? How would Budweiser and DEI officials feel?

Earnhardt is in the middle of a major contract negotiation with DEI. He wants majority ownership of the company.

But he wasn't trying out for Hendrick on Sunday.

"Are you crazy?'' Earnhardt said to the reporter who asked that question.

The reporter didn't respond, but could have said: "No. Are you?"

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.