5-9-07 - Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s future has been the topic of discussion this season, with seemingly everyone in NASCAR consumed with where the sport's biggest star will drive next year.
Tongues were really wagging Wednesday when Earnhardt, who's in the final year of his DEI contract, called a news conference for Thursday morning at his Mooresville race shop without releasing any details.
Reached at a sponsor appearance at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Wednesday night, Earnhardt told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he planned to talk about ``some ideas I've got for the future'' but would not elaborate.
Rampant speculation Wednesday night had Junior set to announce he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company founded by his late father and the only team he's ever driven for, to field his own Nextel Cup team.
Mike Davis, a representative for Earnhardt, refused to discuss Junior's announcement.
Earnhardt owns JR Motorsports, which fields a Busch team for Shane Huffman and several late-model teams. At the recent grand opening for JRM, he said he could see the organization fielding Cup cars. Earnhardt's sister Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, who runs JRM's business side, appeared taken aback by the remark and later said the duo had no plans to expand into NASCAR's top series.
The AJC reported that during Wednesday night's sponsor event, Earnhardt told fans that his plans for JR Motorsports might not include adding Nextel Cup cars and that his priority as a team owner is promoting young drivers and mechanics.
``I don't want the company to get too big,'' he said. ``I've got about 70 employees now, and I don't want to get too many more.''
If expansion is in the cards, Earnhardt would need help with engines and equipment. That could come from car owners Rick Hendrick or Richard Childress, who fielded championship-winning cars for Dale Earnhardt and currently leases engines to JR Motorsports.
Hendrick officials said they have no knowledge of Junior's announcement, and calls to RCR officials were not immediately returned.
But a person familiar with the discussions told The Associated Press that Hendrick recently offered Earnhardt engines if he decided to field his own team. That person requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it. Hendrick, winners of seven of the past eight races this season, already leases engines to Ginn Racing and Haas-CNC Racing.
Calls to Earnhardt's sponsor Budweiser and race team DEI were not immediately returned Wednesday night. An e-mail to Elledge was not immediately answered.
Just two days ago, during testing at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Earnhardt complained DEI could not compete with Hendrick -- particularly in the Car of Tomorrow. Hendrick drivers have won all four COT races this season, which Earnhardt chalked up to the resources that team has devoted to the program.
``They've got a lot of resources. They've got a great company, two, three really good cars every week, great crew chiefs. They've really got the package right now,'' Earnhardt said Monday. ``Their cars, they handle pretty good. They're getting through the center of the corner better with the COT, and that's just because they test the hell out of it.
``I hear rumors they got Max Papis and road race guys at Sonoma testing and testing and testing and testing.''
Asked if DEI could keep up, Earnhardt didn't pause.
``No. Not many teams can do that,'' he said. ``There are a few that can do that, but not many. They put a lot back into their race teams, you know what I mean?''
Elledge has set a deadline for negotiations with DEI, saying a deal must be completed by the end of this month. And Earnhardt's sponsor Budweiser, which has an option on its DEI deal, is free to leave and follow Junior wherever he goes.
That has given Earnhardt the power in this latest round of contract negotiations with his stepmother, Teresa, and Junior and his sister have exerted it more than once. They've demanded at least 51 percent of the company in a bid to gain control of what they believe their father wanted them to have.
Both sides have stopped commenting publicly on the issue since Earnhardt was caught off guard last month by DEI president Max Siegel's remarks that the driver had been offered 51 percent of the company.
People familiar with the negotiations have told the AP that Teresa Earnhardt is willing to sell the shares to Junior for between $55 and $75 million. Those persons requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deal.
Earnhardt and his sister, however, aren't convinced they should pay anything for the shares.
The two have been adamant that their only goal is to help Junior win Cup championships, something he's been unable to do at DEI. He has not been a legitimate title contender since 2004. In 2005, he had a horrendous season when Teresa Earnhardt split up his crew, and he failed to make the Chase for the championship.
He rebounded last year by making the Chase but was never a threat for the title.
The contentious contract talks started before the season even began, when Teresa Earnhardt questioned her stepson's commitment in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
``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,'' she said in the Dec. 14, 2006 story.
He was silent on the issue until preseason testing, when he admitted the comments bothered him and said his relationship with his stepmother ``ain't a bed of roses.''
``The relationship that we have today is the same relationship we had when I was 6 years old when I moved into that house with Dad and her,'' he said. ``It's always been the same. It hasn't gotten worse over the last couple years or last couple months.
``The way I felt about her then is the way I feel about her now.''