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As Earnhardt chills out, fallout heats up

The garages buzz with talk of Junior's future. His plan for now? Relax.

By BRANT JAMES
Published May 12, 2007


DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Barely 24 hours after Dale Earnhardt Jr. took an ax to one of NASCAR's precious few absolutes -- that he would drive his entire career for the team his father created -- the sport's most popular driver said he needed time to recover from the emotional decision to leave before figuring out for whom he'll drive next season.

"I would like to take a week or two to clear my mind a little bit, drink some beers and have some fun," he said Friday in the garage at Darlington Raceway, "get back to normal. I have felt about as unnormal as I possibly could the past few days, lost a lot of sleep.

"So I want to relax and just clear my head and get a good football stance to go after this new deal that we're seeking."

His decision means quite a few people in the garage won't have the luxury of relaxing.

Some owners certainly will wonder about the possibilities this creates. Richard Childress is seemingly in prime position.

He is one Nextel Cup driver under the NASCAR-mandated limit of four, and he has the desire and relationships to bring Earnhardt aboard as he did his father in 1984. So he can expect that Junior question a lot. In the garage, in sponsor meetings, in the grocery store.

Childress said that Earnhardt should be given time to do his "due diligence" and that they've had no talks.

"We will sit and talk, I'm sure," he said. "I'm hoping he's considering us. ... I've been friends with the family for many years, and I'm sure the time will come when we'll talk."

Drivers are in a different position, though certainly Casey Mears has become a topic of conversation. His contract to drive Hendrick Motorsports' No. 25 Chevrolet has been all but dissolved by a blogosphere of rumormongers, though the deal runs through 2009. He said he has been assured his job is safe by team owner Rick Hendrick.

Still, he wouldn't be unhappy if Earnhardt hammered out a deal soon to avoid what would be a "very, very huge surprise." For now, he's riding out his time in the grist mill.

"We haven't performed like we want to, so I can see how that would bring us into speculation," said Mears, who is 34th in points and the only one of the four Hendrick cars not among the top six.

"But I've been reassured otherwise that we've got a good thing going here, and we're excited about where it's heading. So I'm not very worried about it."

Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s employees have to sort out their feelings about the guy whose name is on the front door walking out it. Some might decide to follow.

Crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr. will discuss his situation with Max Siegel, team president of global operations. The rest must decide how competitive what director of motorsports Richie Gilmore admitted is a diminished DEI can be and what effect losing one of the sport's most powerful sponsors, Budweiser, will have.

"I think it's a different challenge," Gilmore said. "On the competition side, we have a lot of things in place that we've been working on to get better. I think if you take Junior out, on the marketing side, that's how it makes it more difficult."

DEI technical director Steve Hmiel, sensitive to the fact Earnhardt said the cars he builds cannot win championships, asserted that the company will survive and that no employee had expressed an interest in leaving. That said, there is visible apprehension behind the smiles.

"Everybody who has talked to me has been concerned that they could remain and there would be a job there, a viable company there, " Hmiel said.

"That's their insurance, that there's a viable company. We're going to race. We're going to race forever. That's what (owner Teresa Earnhardt) wants to do. She's proved that time and time again through really bad situations for herself personally."

For some, the news left the rubble of dreams.

Tony Eury Sr. and Earnhardt Sr. used to ponder what DEI could be: a place, they hoped, where their children could be drivers, crew chiefs or executives.

"We were going to teach these kids how to race, and we were going to sit on the porch and drink beer and watch them," Eury Sr. said.

Those plans are long gone, even if the strained family bonds among Earnhardt, sister and business manager Kelley Earnhardt Elledge and their stepmother, Teresa, survive.

"I've been at DEI for 21 years, " Eury Sr. said. "So I was planning on retiring there. ... We'll have to see what happens."

Just like everyone else.