Junior follows vision

The NASCAR star will leave DEI in hopes of winning a title soon.

Published May 11, 2007

MOORESVILLE, N.C. - There was a sentiment that the late Dale Earnhardt would soothe this festering situation, that the legacy of the race team he created for his children would compel his son and namesake to stay with Dale Earnhardt Inc. despite his differences with his stepmother and team owner, Teresa.

Ultimately, Earnhardt Sr.'s still-powerful presence had a profound effect. It told Earnhardt Jr. to be his own man.

In an announcement still stunning despite the public acrimony that underlined negotiations since December, Junior said Thursday that he will not return to DEI once his contract expires at the end of this season.

Junior, saying he still would like an ownership role with DEI, cited competitive reasons for his decision, following through on demands for a car capable of winning a first championship. Perhaps as an olive branch to DEI president of global operations Max Siegel, who stood feet from the stage at Junior's JR Motorsports shop during the announcement, Junior said he felt DEI was making an effort to improve, though he and its leadership had a different vision.

Junior, whose only serious title contention was in 2004 when he won six races, clearly didn't think progress was being made fast enough. He had sought majority ownership to quicken the pace, after winning just twice since 2004, but ultimately said a deal was never close. So as his father left owner Bud Moore for Richard Childress Racing in 1984 and went on to win six of his seven titles, Earnhardt Sr. made his own defining move.

"At 32 years of age, the same age as my father was when he made his final and most important career decision, it is time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships now, " he said.

Junior did not name a preferred employer, although few would be able to accommodate his presumably large salary and appetite for elite equipment. His overt suggestions that he would like to remain in Chevrolets narrows that field to Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing.

Hendrick, which has won seven of 10 races this year, has four Nextel Cup drivers - the NASCAR-mandated limit - under contract, but new addition Casey Mears is struggling.

"If one of the best drivers is available, I'm sure everyone is looking, " Hendrick vice president of competition Ken Howes said. "I don't know that we're looking. We'll just have to see what his plans are. I haven't spoken to Junior."

Howes said a rumor that Junior would lease Hendrick motors and field his own team was "garage talk, speculation."

Gibbs is interested in adding a fourth car eventually and employs Junior buddies Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, but the company's openly Christian ownership could have a problem bringing aboard sponsor Budweiser, which plans to follow Junior.

That leaves the most intriguing possibility, RCR, where Junior's father bloomed, earning all but nine of his 76 victories and six titles in an iconic No. 3 left vacant since his death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Junior noted Childress has "made a great effort to improve and be as good as his teams can be" but appeared reticent to trade the weight of driving for his late father's team for driving his legendary number.

"I've got to do a little soul searching about how I feel about driving a No. 3 car, " he said. "That doesn't change my opinion of whether I would go drive for Richard or not. I don't have to drive the No. 3 car.

"With respect to my father, I don't feel very comfortable with that. He made that number what it is. With respect to him, I believe that it belongs to him."

Hamlin, whose quick ascent to the Cup level was aided by opportunities Junior provided, said from talking to his friend's "people, " he thought two teams would be "way ahead of the others." He didn't seem to include Gibbs in that equation and noted that he and Junior leave business in the garage.

Still, a true free agent is unusual in racing, especially one of the 17-race winner's stature. So Junior will be NASCAR's dominant story until he signs a deal.

"He's probably one of the biggest guys in the last ... forever that is now looking for a ride, " Hamlin said. "He can pretty much go wherever he wants to just based off what he can bringing to the organization, moneywise."

That means Junior figures to get exactly what he wants once he and sister/business manager Kelley Earnhardt Elledge cull what promises to a full voicemail box.

"The thing that Junior has that not many people have in the sport is - I don't know that car owners are going to throw drivers out to get Junior, but - certainly car owners are going to be enticed to make things work, " RCR driver Jeff Burton said. "He doesn't necessarily have to have the crystal ball to see, 'I'm going to have a good ride.' He can probably rest pretty well at night knowing that he will have good equipment."

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or 727 893-8804.