By: Toby Christie – @Toby_Christie
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement from full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing earlier this season, he was emphatic that he would not be completely done driving.
The 14-time most popular driver will have at least two NASCAR Xfinity Series starts for his JR Motorsports team in 2018, but what about a one-off Cup Series start?
This past week, in Sonoma Earnhardt was pressed during his media availability about his upcoming final start at Daytona. Earnhardt responded by sounding as though he isn’t finished racing at the 2.5-mile speedway.
“Well you never say never,” Earnhardt said. “I am just retiring from full-time racing. I am going to run some Xfinity races next year. I don’t know that I won’t ever run the Daytona 500 again if the right deal comes along.”
That being said, never say never is a long way away from Earnhardt actually running a race. But it’s interesting that Earnhardt said that he would entertain the thought of running NASCAR’s biggest race if the right deal came along.
That leads your mind to wonder what would be the right deal for Earnhardt to come back to drive in the 2018 Daytona 500?
Earnhardt — if you’ve ever listened to his Dale Jr. Download Podcast — is very focused on his brand, and a huge part of his brand involves Chevrolet. That being said, I doubt he would entertain any offers from non Chevy teams.
That eliminates over half of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field.
Of the Chevy teams, you would imagine he would limit himself to teams that have a winning record or are aligned with a team that has a history of winning.
That would seemingly eliminate Tommy Baldwin Racing (who usually fields a car in the Daytona 500), Rick Ware Racing, Circle Sport/The Motorsports Group — where Earnhardt’s nephew Jeffrey drives — and Premium Motorsports (one Chevy car and one Toyota car).
Teams that have a full stable of four cars would also be off the table as well. That criteria should eliminate Earnhardt’s current team — Hendrick Motorsports — who have yet to name his replacement in the No. 88 car, but are expected to do so soon.
So what does that leave as far as realistic driving options for Earnhardt in the ’18 Daytona 500?
One of the two most enticing options for Earnhardt would be to run in a third Chip Ganassi Racing car.
Ganassi is a legendary car owner in motorsports. His IndyCar and sports car teams have been among the best in their respective series for years, and now his Cup Series team is finally starting to blossom with young talented superstar Kyle Larson leading the way.
Through 16 races in the 2017 season, Ganassi drivers sit first and eighth in the championship standings. Their Chevrolets have been among the fastest cars week in and week out. The CGR team would definitely give Earnhardt a potent shot at winning next year’s Daytona 500.
The other most realistic opportunity for Earnhardt driving another Daytona 500 would have to be piloting a fourth car for Richard Childress Racing — the team Earnhardt’s father won six of his seven championships with.
Earnhardt has driven cars in partnership with RCR before in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and has almost always ended up in victory lane with them. It would be a feel good story for the Junior Nation to see Earnhardt Jr. try to win his magical third Daytona 500 for RCR.
A move to RCR would put ECR (Earnhardt-Childress Racing) engines in his car again. ECR motors powered Earnhardt to a Daytona 500 win, a July Daytona race win and numerous other restrictor plate race victories in his time with the now defunct Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
While those are the two most likely landing spots for Earnhardt if he wants to run next year’s Daytona 500 there are still a few other decent options.
RCR has several technical alliances in the field including Germain Racing, Leavine Family Racing and JTG/Daugherty Racing. Each of these teams are not maxed out at four cars and could also support an extra car effort at next year’s season opening event.
It would be a dream scenario for those RCR Satellite teams to land Earnhardt for the sport’s most iconic race, but realistically if Earnhardt is going to run another Daytona 500, currently it seems like he has two legitimate options: RCR or CGR.
Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images