NASCAR: Dale Jr. makes the right move

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Call it coincidence. When my clock radio blared to life at 7:30 Thursday morning, the song playing on the radio was Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- specifically, the line "Mama mia, let me go." Less than four hours later, at h...

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Call it coincidence.

When my clock radio blared to life at 7:30 Thursday morning, the song playing on the radio was Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- specifically, the line "Mama mia, let me go."

Less than four hours later, at his JR Motorsports race shop, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his declaration of independence from Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company founded by his father, the late Dale Earnhardt, and his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt.

"At 32 years of age, the same age my father was when he made his final, and most important career decision, it is the time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships -- now," Earnhardt read from a prepared statement, his amplified voice reverberating off the walls of the sprawling facility.

With the announcement of his departure from DEI, Earnhardt (who appeared with his sister and business manager, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge) will become the highest-priced, most sought-after free agent in the history of NASCAR racing, but his statement and the interview period that followed left a multitude of questions unanswered.


Will Earnhardt retain the No. 8, which he has driven for his entire Nextel Cup career? Will he remain in a Chevrolet? Will he drive the No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing, the ride that carried his father to six of his seven Cup championships? Will crew chief Tony Eury Jr., Junior's cousin, accompany him to a new team? Will Budweiser continue to sponsor him?

Anheuser-Busch, at least, answered that last question within minutes of the conclusion of the news conference. Tony Ponturo, vice president of global media and sports marketing for the St. Louis-based beer company, issued a statement saying the Budweiser brand will continue its relationship with Earnhardt and JR Motorsports through 2008 and -- if A-B gets its wish -- beyond.

It's also a given that Earnhardt will be reluctant to change manufacturers.

"I enjoy driving Chevrolets, and my relationship with Chevrolet is very, very strong," Earnhardt said. "I feel like that is where I'd be best suited, to continue driving Chevrolets."

As to the car numbers, Earnhardt doesn't think the No. 8 will be available, and he's not sure he's comfortable driving the No. 3.

"It would be awesome to continue driving the No. 8, but those numbers are owned by the car owners and I'm sure Teresa would love to keep that number at DEI," Earnhardt said.

As to the No. 3, he believes that car is still the province of his father, though Earnhardt certainly will entertain an offer from Childress, perhaps to drive a car with another number. Unlike Hendrick Motorsports, which has a full stable of four drivers (the maximum allowed by NASCAR) in Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears, Childress could add a fourth team to complement Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

"I have a great relationship with Richard, and I feel like, on his behalf, that he's stepped his programs up," Earnhardt said. "He's made a great effort to improve and be as good as his teams can be.


"But I've got to do a little soul-searching about how I feel about driving the No. 3 car. That doesn't change my opinion of whether I'd go drive for Richard or not. I don't have to drive the No. 3 car. But I don't know personally if that's what I want to do, specific to that number.

"Like I said, I'm going to make this decision once, so I have to really ask myself if I want to be driving that number the rest of my career. With respect to my father, I don't really feel comfortable with that. He made that number what it is, and with respect to him, I believe that it belongs to him."

Whatever car Earnhardt drives, and whichever owner fields the car he drives, there's a clear bottom line to his decision to leave DEI. At 32, the same age his father signed with Childress, Earnhardt feels an urgency to win races and contend for championships.

And because the negotiations with his stepmother and Max Siegel, DEI's president of global operations, weren't going to afford Earnhardt the opportunity control the vision and the direction of DEI, Junior feels his chances of running for a championship-caliber team lie elsewhere.

"I can honestly say that we weren't really close with what we both had in mind," Earnhardt said of the protracted negotiations. "My father's vision ... if he was still here, I think we would be in a different place right now.

"Obviously I feel like his vision -- and he said it himself -- was for me to have a huge role in the company itself. Through the negotiations, Kelley and I felt like that was not in the cards. It may be in the cards 20 years down the road, it may be something that happens. From a driver standpoint, for what I want to do and what I want to accomplish, this is something that I had to do."

From a performance standpoint, the Chevrolet teams of Childress, Hendrick and Joe Gibbs are likely to be at the top of Earnhardt's list. Elledge said fielding a Cup team of their own was possible but would be the last choice.

Remember when Earnhardt subbed for Kyle Busch at Texas in the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet? After driving Busch's wrecked car for nine laps, Earnhardt said something to the effect that the No. 5 drove better wrecked that some of his DEI cars did when they weren't. He also said the relief role gave him the chance "to see how the other half lives."


At the time, Earnhardt scoffed at the notion that it was an audition. But perhaps it was a glimpse of the future -- and as Earnhardt said to open his remarks Thursday, the future is now.

Though he's called "Junior" and "Little E," and though he has an almost childlike, self-effacing quality to him, it's important to remember that Earnhardt is a 32-year-old man with an agenda. And like his father, he's a man who knows his mind and follows his heart.

To achieve what he wants to achieve in stock car racing, Earnhardt had to make a move, even if it meant saying goodbye to lifelong friends and alienating some of his most ardent supporters.

He did the right thing.

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