At least one bond will never be broken

Published May 11, 2007

"Our blood contract has been good for 23 years, and that will always be the most important contract I have with him."
Dale Earnhardt Sr., on the first contract his son signed with DEI in 1998

Remember that today. Remember those words as Dale Earnhardt Jr. sadly walks away from the company built by his father and bearing his name.

It appears as if the link between team and driver will forever be severed, but never forget that the bond between father and son should outlive them all.

For it was never about Chevy. It was never about the red Budweiser logo, nor the No. 8 on the hood. And it was certainly never because his paychecks were coming from the corporate offices of Dale Earnhardt Inc.

No, the initial allure of Junior was in the legacy.

He was the heir to his father's popularity. He was the bridge between yesterday's ovation and tomorrow's hope. You may take away the scepter and crown, but the prince is still the king's son.

And so it is for Junior. His car may not look the same, but his appeal has not changed. Which means the balance of power in NASCAR is officially up for grabs.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think Teresa Earnhardt may have just discovered a new path to inconsequential. She took a team worth tens of millions and reduced its value and potential in exchange for having the last word in a family spat.

And if she had any hope of claiming the higher ground, she has a lot of climbing to do. In an ESPN.com poll, about 80 percent of more than 50,000 respondents blamed her for Junior's departure. And more than 90 percent said Junior was not out of line in seeking a controlling interest in DEI.

So how did it get to this point? How did it reach such a divide when Junior wanted to stay and Teresa needed him to stay?

There is no simple answer.

It has a lot to do with strained relations between Teresa and Junior since the time she became his stepmom more than 25 years ago. It has something to do with the relative lack of success at DEI in recent seasons.

And it obviously has much to do with Earnhardt Sr.'s death in 2001 before a more definitive line of succession could be established at DEI.

"His vision, and he said it himself, was for me to have a huge role in the company," Junior said Thursday. "And I feel like me and Kelley (Junior's sister) came to the understanding that that was not in the cards."

So, yes, it is a crying shame that dysfunction has replaced affection in the family, but it does not mean the Earnhardt name will unduly suffer.

DEI may be in trouble, but Junior is in a better position than ever. Perhaps the best bargaining position a NASCAR driver has ever known.

He can name his price. He can name his conditions. He can probably name an owner's first-born child if it came to that.

The heavyweights in Chevy racing will entice him, and the upstarts will likely chase him, too.

At 32, Junior is the same age his father was when he left Bud Moore for Richard Childress racing in 1984. The move jump-started Earnhardt Sr.'s career, leading to six of his seven Cup championships and 67 of 76 career victories.

"Hopefully I can accomplish the things I want to accomplish and put on the show that I think I can put on," Junior said. "I feel like over the last year or two I have shortchanged my fans. They have been very loyal in sticking behind me when we haven't put up the results we're capable of doing.

"I'm hoping to win some races and win some championships to give those guys what they pay all that money to see us for."

Junior hit all the right notes Thursday. Although many of his fans would have approved, he declined to take shots at Teresa.

He could have been smug but instead seemed genuinely disappointed. He acknowledged his unique bargaining power but did not give the impression that he would wield it like a club.

All in all, it was a performance that would have made his father proud.

For the amount of talk over the years of his outside interests and lack of dedication, Junior seems to have grown into his role as the face of a sport.

He may not yet have a Cup championship, but he has won nearly twice as many races (17) as Earnhardt Sr. did at this age, and he has finished the season in the top 10 four times. And still, he is not close to being satisfied.

It's ironic because the rift between Teresa and Junior grew wider in December when she told a newspaper that it was time for him to decide whether he was more interested in being a NASCAR driver or a celebrity.

From the looks of it, she got her answer Thursday.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8811.