Earnhardt announces he is leaving DEI
by Pete McCole
May 10, 2007

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Pete McCole

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced Thursday he will leave Dale Earnhardt, Inc. – the team founded by his late father, seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, Sr. – after the conclusion of the 2007 racing season.

After failing to secure a deal with the team, Earnhardt, Jr. will become a free-agent in 2008, but Earnhardt, Jr. did not elaborate on who he would be driving for in 2008 or if any deals had been reached with any other existing NASCAR Nextel Cup teams.

Appearing at a press conference this morning with his sister and business manager, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, Earnhardt, Jr., who had been involved in intense negotiations to renew his contract with DEI, said an agreement could not be reached, and that “we have decided it is time for me to move on.”

“As the negotiations continued, one thing became evident, we both wanted me to get to the same place, but we simply had disagreements on how to get there,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Because DEI means so much to me, I felt it was best now for both of us to start focusing on our future so that we both come out of this successfully.

“DEI will always be a special place for me and my family. (Owner) Teresa (Earnhardt) and (Vice President of Global Operations) Max Siegel are taking the necessary steps to bring DEI back to one of the front-running NASCAR teams. However I am 32 years old – the same age as my father when he made his final and most important career decision – and the time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships is now.

“Since that is what I plan to do, I feel strongly that I would have my father’s blessing.”

No mention was made on whether or not Earnhardt, Jr.’s sponsor, Budweiser, would follow him after his departure, although speculation is they would like to remain with Earnhardt, Jr.

Earnhardt did confirm that his decision does not affect DEI’s other Nextel Cup or Busch Series teams, or DEI drivers Martin Truex, Jr. and Paul Menard, who despite rumors to the contrary were not a part of Thursday’s announcement.

Kelley Earnhardt Elledge - President of JR Motorsports (also acts as Junior's business manager and handled all negotiations between Junior and DEI)
Pete McCole

Earnhardt, Jr.'s decision apparently brings to a close a chapter of a nearly six month drama over the future of Earnhardt, Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, who had been in negotiations with DEI to renew his contract with the team, which expires at the end of the 2007 season.

All parties were hopeful they could have a deal worked out by early May, after that time came and went, rampant speculation began to spread about where Earnhardt, Jr. might end up.

That question still remains unanswered, as neither Earnhardt nor Elledge made any announcements as to where Earnhardt, Jr. may drive for in 2008.

“What team I drive for next season, I don’t know,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But what I do want to say is that it’s been a privilege to drive for DEI.”

Over the last few weeks, there had been widespread rumors of Earnhardt, Jr. leaving to join Hendrick Motorsports, rumors Earnhardt, Jr. himself inflamed when he stepped in to relieve driver Kyle Busch in the Hendrick Motorsports-owned no. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Speedway last month.

When asked last month if his short stint in the car was an “audition” for Hendrick, Earnhardt called the notion “crazy”.

Another logical choice would be Richard Childress Racing, which fielded cars for Dale Earnhardt, Sr. for six of his seven championship wins.

AutoRacing1.com learned last month from a source within the Childress camp that a contract with Earnhardt, Jr. was “a done deal”, putting Earnhardt behind the wheel of a no. 3 Chevy for RCR.

Still another possibility would have Earnhardt fielding his own team as an offshoot to JR Motorsports, which fields cars in the NASCAR Busch Series for driver Shane Huffman.

At a press event to unveil JR Motorsports new shop in April, Earnhardt said “it's always a possibility” when asked if JR Motorsports could someday field their own team.

Earnhardt, Jr. has been engaged in a war of words in the media with his stepmother, who assumed control of the company after Earnhardt, Sr. was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.

The first signs of tensions between the two surfaced in a Dec. 14, 2006 issue of the Wall Street Journal, where Teresa Earnhardt, speaking of Earnhardt, Jr.’s future with the team, was quoted as saying "Right now the ball's in his court to decide on whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or whether he wants to be a public personality.”

Earnhardt responded in January during preseason testing for the Daytona 500, admitting his relationship with Teresa was “no bed of roses” and he hoped a deal could be worked out to stay at DEI.

In February, Earnhardt, Jr. dropped a bombshell, announcing to the press that as part of his negotiations, he was seeking an ownership role in the team, or more specifically, a majority ownership role of 51 percent of the team. Rumors had surfaced that DEI had demanded as much as $55 million from Earnhardt, Jr. for the majority stake.

In Earnhardt’s words, however, the contract talks “never even got close” to what he was wanting from the team.

However, what long-term effects Earnhardt, Jr.'s departure will bring about for DEI remains to be seen.

The team currently fields three cars, including a full-time Nextel Cup operation for Truex, Jr. and part-time Cup team for Menard.

Earnhardt, Jr. has spent his entire racing career driving for DEI, which began competing full-time in the NASCAR Busch Series and Craftsman Truck Series in 1995.

Following the death of Earnhardt, Sr., his widow Teresa, took over control of the team. During her tenure, the team has had several up-and-down years, including a dismal finish in 2005, where Earnhardt, Jr. finished a career-worst 19th in points.

Over the last two seasons, the team has shown improvement, finishing fifth in last year’s point standings.

Max Siegel  - President of Global Operations for DEI (took over lead negotiations when he was hired back in Dec. His background is in the entertainment biz).
Pete McCole

Siegel, who was in attendance for Thursday’s announcement, said the company “totally respects (Earnhardt, Jr.’s) decision.”

“We all did the best that we could to meet each other somewhere that we could agree on,” said Siegel. “Everyone remained extremely committed to the process, we tried to address all the issues, but we both felt that it was important to our commercial partners and our respective companies to start moving forward in a positive direction.”

However, Siegel reiterated that “(Earnhardt, Jr.) is part of the family and will always be a part of the family.”

Teresa Earnhardt, who was not present at the announcement, released a statement early Thursday afternoon, “While we are very disappointed that Dale Jr. has chosen to leave the family business, we remain excited about our company’s future,” she said in the statement. “Our aggressive expansion and diversification plans have not changed. This company has continued to thrive since Dale left us in 2001, and it will thrive following today’s announcement. Dale and I built this company to be a championship-contender, and those principles still apply.

“Dale Earnhardt, Inc. will win, and we have other extremely talented drivers and hundreds of employees that are dedicated to the programs we founded. This company has a great legacy and a bright future, built on loyalty, integrity, and commitment.”

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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