USA TODAY International Edition
Earnhardt faces future, wants to stay with current team
DEI deal nears end, Dale Jr. says he has commitment to win
CLEVELAND, N.C. — Uncertainty tailed Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he prepared for the first major test session of the 2007 Nextel Cup season this week at Daytona International Speedway.
Can his team visit victory lanemore than once as it did in 2006? How competitive will it be when NASCAR orders the Car of Tomorrow onto tracks for 16 races beginning in March? Who will be Earnhardt’s boss next year and beyond?
For now, it’s Teresa Earnhardt, Dale Jr.’s stepmom and widowof his father. She controls Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the Cup team that fields the No. 8 Budweiser-sponsored Chevrolet.
But Earnhardt Jr.’s contract expires at the end of this season, and comments last month by Teresa published in The Wall Street Journal raise questions regarding how much confidence she has in her current driver to take a car thatfinishedfifth in the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup and bring home a championship.
In a Dec. 14 story focused primarily on the hiring of Max Siegel as DEI’s second in command, Teresa said of Junior, “Right now the ball’s in his court to decide onwhether hewants to be a NASCAR driver or whether hewants to be a public personality.”
“I was surprised to read that in the article about the new president,” he said. “I really didn’t know if she got taken out of context. I haven’t talked to her personally about it. It’s quite interesting to read everybody else’s take on it.”
Earnhardt and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, his business manager for JR Motorsports, said neither had spoken directlywith Teresa since her comments and no face-to-face meeting had been scheduled despite the unresolved contract issue.
Earnhardt said that’s not unusual, given his relationship with his stepmom. “We’ll go three months without talking, without seeing each other,” he said.
But Earnhardt said his relationship is not as chilly with Teresa nor nearly as unpalatable at DEI as some believe. “We’re cordial,” he said. “I think everybody’s always had this idea that we were very negative.”
Earnhardt said much of Teresa’s efforts involve managing the legacy of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and the money-making ventures that legacy continues to spawn.
The relationship between Dale Jr. and Teresa took a monumental turn in February 2001 when Earnhardt Sr. died in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
“Five or six years ago — when Dad was alive — we didn’t really discuss anything business-wise,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I talked to Dad about the race teams and racing and talked to Teresa about personal stuff, like ‘Hey, I’m going to buy a boat. What does that entail?’ She knew about stuff like that. Nowshe’s the owner, and I’ve got to talk to her about race teams and race cars and what I expect out of her efforts and the company.”
Earnhardt Jr. has other options, most no- tably an open-ended invitation to drive for Richard Childress, who owned the car his fatherdrove andwhostill controls rights to the iconic No. 3.
“That keeps coming up,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Ever since I started driving under a contract, it’s something that would come up every time we get toward the end of a deal. If I get an opportunity to drive for Richard in the twilight of my career, if he’s still interested, that would be awesome.
“Right now I want to drive for my father’s company and drive the No. 8 Bud car. That’swhat I do. That’swhat I’m knownfor and how I want things to be.”
“As a driver over the last several years, I’ve faced scrutiny and question marks about my determination and where my true passion lies,” said Earnhardt Jr., whose bachelor lifestyle and young-gun image, even at 32, are front-and-center in advertising campaigns for Anheuser-Busch and Wrangler jeans.
“My dad had his style. He set a high bar with the way he drove and how he felt about racing. Heprettymuchwore it onhis sleeve. When I first started, it was, ‘Whatever, man. If this doesn’t work out I’ll go back to working on cars at the dealership.’ . . . Each year, that determination and how much it reallymattered gotmore powerful. This last season I feel like (that determination) was equal to anybody in this sport. I finally got to that level where it matters to me asmuch as anybody else.”