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Earnhardt's DEI team not fretting about contract yet

By BRANT JAMES
Published August 8, 2006


INDIANAPOLIS - Nextel Cup's current market clearly favors drivers - any driver.

An expected influx of seven new Toyota-driving teams in 2007 created rides and opportunities for some such as Dale Jarrett, Jeremy Mayfield and Elliott Sadler, who have not won in years. The market has helped Casey Mears and Brian Vickers, who have never won at NASCAR's highest level. Even David Gilliland has major options after one stunning Busch Series win. All have or will switch teams for more lucrative contracts.

So it's somewhat reassuring for Dale Earnhardt Inc. director of motorsports Richie Gilmore that his team's meal ticket is the son of the founder and has more than just a business bond with the organization. Still, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. set to become a free agent at the end of next season, constant but casual negotiations are under way to re-sign NASCAR's most popular driver.

"We talk about it all the time," Gilmore said. "It's different when you work on his contract because it's business, it's family. It's very complicated when you work with Dale Jr. and (stepmother/team owner) Teresa because there's so many different parts to it. It's his dad's business and it's complicated. I know Teresa wants it to be Dale Jr.'s and Kelley's and Kerry's (also Dale Earnhardt's children) someday because that's what Dale built it for and that's in the long-term plans."

Gilmore said he personally avoids the talks though he is the team's highest-ranking executive in the racing operation. Earnhardt Jr. is signed to a typical driver contract, he said.

"Never mix business and family and when you do, you let the family handle it," he said.

Earnhardt has several times entertained the idea of driving the No. 3 Chevrolet made legendary by his late father, but that number is owned by Richard Childress Racing. Still, Gilmore thinks Earnhardt Jr. will remain at DEI. At least, he hopes so.

"It's tough to tell," he said. "You never know how things are going to happen, but you would think so, with the name on the building and the billboard."

STAYING PUT: It's unusual for the often robotic Chad Knaus to offer much emotion or admit something is out of his control. Ultra-confident, and an all-involved leader of one of Nextel Cup's top teams, Jimmie Johnson's crew chief seemed genuinely moved Sunday by a first win in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

Controlling to the point of monitoring his team's wardrobe before flights, Knaus admitted he "didn't know what to do" to reverse the team's luck at Indy coming in, especially when a spate of odd problems - flat tire, dead radio batteries, pit fire - plagued them again. Bad Indy results (36th and 38th the previous two years) had seemingly begun downward spirals and helped knock Johnson out of the points lead both times.

"I did see it as a personal momentum-breaker for myself because it's something that we had not been able to conquer," Knaus said. "So I just wanted to come here and try to make peace with it, you know?"

The win came on the same weekend of his 35th birthday and the announcement that he had been extended with Hendrick Motorsports through 2010.

Knaus said team owner Rick Hendrick had turned him into "a great adult and helped me become a great leader."

Knaus used those leadership skills to turn away several Hendrick employees, he said, who had left for the new Toyota Nextel Cup program, then asked to return.

"Hopefully they'll tell the others on the team and nobody else will want to leave," he said.

SPARK PLUGS: Speed Channel reported Sunday that Mark Martin has been offered $8-million by either Ford or Roush Racing not to retire after this season as planned because of the upheaval within the manufacturer's program and the entry of Toyota in 2007. Robert Yates Racing is in disarray with Jarrett and Sadler leaving and the manufacturer wished not to rely on too many unproven younger drivers, the report said. Martin wanted to retire from full-time Cup competition after last season but returned after Kurt Busch's departure left Roush in a pinch. ... By unofficial estimate, fewer than 225,000 attended the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, the lowest figure in the race's 13 years. Empty rows were visible all around the track, and radio stations and hawkers were peddling tickets aplenty on race morning. ... Bill Davis Racing director of competition Tommy Baldwin said driver Dave Blaney is likely to return next season in the No. 22 Dodge.