Thursday, November 13, 2008
Updated: November 14, 11:25 AM ET
DEI-Ganassi merger a sign of the times in this difficult economy
By Terry Blount
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Somewhere today in South Florida, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is chuckling.
OK, I don't know that for a fact, but it's a reasonable assumption.
Teresa Earnhardt, who had no intentions of making Junior her partner at Dale Earnhardt Inc. a year ago, now is a partner with Chip Ganassi.
This is what happens when NASCAR team owners reach survival mode. You do what you have to do, even if the pairing seems about as likely as Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann sharing Thanksgiving dinner.
Welcome to the new NASCAR world of addition by subtraction. The merger between Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing has transformed six cars into four. Actually, it's seven to four if you count the No. 40 car that Ganassi already jettisoned earlier this season for lack of sponsorship.
These are difficult economic times. Even with this merger, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing is a four-car team with only two and a half sponsors heading into 2009. There are no guarantees.
DEI is going through its second merger in a little more than a year's time. Bobby Ginn's team sold out to DEI last season. That move came after Earnhardt made his decision to join Hendrick Motorsports and leave the organization his father founded.
Junior wanted controlling interest in DEI, something his stepmother wasn't giving up. You have to wonder how things would look today had Earnhardt become the boss of DEI.
When Junior left, so did Budweiser, moving to Kasey Kahne's Dodge at Gillett Evernham Motorsports. DEI hasn't been able to acquire a full-time sponsor for the No. 01 car of Regan Smith, which it inherited from Ginn Racing.
The Army sponsorship, which is on the No. 8 Chevy with Mark Martin, is moving to Tony Stewart's new team at Stewart-Haas Racing, and Martin is going to Hendrick to join Earnhardt. Paul Menard is leaving DEI and taking the sponsorship dollars of his father's company to Yates Racing.
That left DEI with one sponsor -- Bass Pro Shops with driver Martin Truex Jr. -- and two other drivers -- Smith and Aric Almirola -- with no sponsors.
Maybe all this would have happened if Earnhardt had stayed at DEI. The economy took a major downturn since Junior's departure. But maybe things wouldn't have gotten this dire.
Stewart is a prime example of how a big name can bring in big sponsors. Haas CNC Racing gave Stewart ownership rights -- emphasis on gave -- knowing he could bring sponsors and quality personnel to help the team become competitive.
Old Spice, Office Depot and the Army all have come on board, bringing a cash infusion of more than $30 million for the 2009 season. And 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman will join Stewart in the new operation. Stewart is expected to announce other additions this weekend.
If Stewart has that much appeal and power to transform a fledgling Sprint Cup operation, how much more could Earnhardt have brought to DEI?
We'll never know, but DEI still is trying to plug the holes in the dam that resulted from his departure. Reports Wednesday had DEI planning to lay off more than 100 employees because of the merger.
As for Ganassi, it's hard to imagine just how this shotgun marriage, whoops, I mean merger, is going to work out. It appears his team will switch from Dodge to Chevy, although no one has listed all the details of the plan yet.
If two cars ran Chevy motors and two used Dodge power, proprietary issues over engine development would become an issue. Employees working in the same shop would have access to both engine programs.
Richard Childress Racing has an engine-building partnership with DEI that it plans to continue, and RCR doesn't want Dodge looking up its skirt.
Who inevitably will call the shots at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing still is a mystery, but the title might give us a hint. It's hard to imagine a hard-nosed leader like Ganassi, one of the most successful team owners in Indy-car racing, taking orders from a woman who rarely attends a NASCAR race.
The fact both of these team owners agreed to merge shows these truly are desperate times. And there are more to come.
Petty Enterprises, which was hoping to work out a deal with Ganassi or DEI, now has to look elsewhere. The options are limited at best. Bill Davis Racing needs a partner to stay afloat.
No bailout is coming. The only way to make it work is to hope two struggling teams together will become stronger than each team trying to go it alone.
Maybe Earnhardt isn't chuckling. It must be sad to see the team his father founded and loved be forced into an alliance of necessity.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.