The Frontstretch: Earnhardt, Jr. A Free Agent by Thomas Bowles -- Thursday May 10, 2007

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Earnhardt, Jr. A Free Agent

Thomas Bowles · Thursday May 10, 2007

 

Focused but subdued, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. confidently strutted up to the podium one Thursday morning in May, 2007. He settled himself, strolled up to the mic, and took a deep breath.

Then, he gathered the courage to utter the words that will change the scope of NASCAR forever.

D.E.I. and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are no more.

Junior announced his departure from the only Cup organization he’s ever known on Monday, leaving when his contract expires at the end of 2007. Claiming negotiations were “never even close,” Junior said the time was now to end the process and for both parties to move on for 2008. Remaining cordial in the face of obvious disagreement, Junior thanked his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt, Max Siegel, and everyone at D.E.I. for negotiations that fell short after months at the bargaining table. Apparently, the majority ownership Junior sought in the company, something he felt like he deserved, was never given to him as an option.

“Obviously, I feel like his vision was for me to have a huge role,” Junior claimed as to his father’s intentions for D.E.I. “That was not in the cards (with these negotiations).”

“It may be in the cards 20 years down the road, but for what I want to accomplish in my driving career, this is the decision I made today.”

Certainly, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. loomed large over the discussions; while Junior was careful not to criticize anyone from the organization, he made it clear there were differences in opinion as to what he felt his father wanted this organization to go.

“If he was still here, we would all be in a different place right now,” he said. “Without him here, it’s a much more difficult task (to accomplish his goals with the company). (D.E.I.) may not be the exact thing my father wanted, but it could still be successful (without me there).”

“In this sport, you don’t keep a secret very long,” said Kelley Earnhardt Elledge. “I think our fans deserve an answer as to whether we will be at D.E.I. or not, and now we can focus on where we’re going.”

“We’ve done contracts with D.E.I. before,” added Junior. “This was ten times the work, the effort, the discussion, and the meetings, but we never even got close.”

Junior’s press conference was preceded by a solemn meeting at D.E.I. where Junior announced his decision to leave the organization. Claiming he loves his team and there’s still great camaraderie, he explained he doesn’t expect everyone to understand, but will give maximum effort the rest of the season and expects his team to do the same.

As for Teresa, “She wasn’t surprised,” said Junior. “It seems like she’s focused on keeping the morale of the employees as high as possible. She’s looking around the corner to do what she needs to do and prepare her company for 2008.”

Shortly after the press conference, Teresa herself released an official statement, which read as follows :

“While we are very disappointed that Dale, Jr. has chosen to leave the family business, we remain excited about our company’s future. 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.”

Junior’s future will obviously now be the source of intense speculation for the following weeks and months. Junior was quick to shoot down several rumors : Martin Truex, Jr. is not going with him, Budweiser and No. 8 will likely be part of his future but have not been 100% secured, and current crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. will “do what he wants to do.” Most importantly, the widely rumored announcement that he was starting his own team was false. What is true, claimed Junior, was that he’s a free agent; and that means he’s available to anyone.

“It doesn’t cost anything to listen,” said Junior. “So we’re going to listen to anyone who wants to talk and go from there.”

Kelley also chimed in on Junior’s possible future plans, further dispelling rumors Junior was ready to form his own team. Claiming the first choice was to join an already competitive program, she speculated forming a team for Junior would be a last resort.

Clearly, there will be no shortage of car owners who will come calling in the next weeks and months. For Junior, he claims money is not the issue.

“For me, I made this decision to put myself in a better position for next year and down the road,” said Junior. “I feel like this is what I need to do personally.”

“I only want to make a change once,” he continued. “It’s not about the money. It’s who can give me the best opportunities for the rest of my driving career.”

Editor’s Note : In lieu of comments following this news article, Frontstretch would like you, the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fan, to let us know exactly what you feel about his latest move. Email us at editors@frontstretch.com with your reaction to this announcement, and we’ll select the best opinions and put them in a special fan reaction for tomorrow. And remember, we have your resident fan spokesperson, Matt Taliaferro, here for you too every Thursday…feel free to email him at matt.taliaferro@frontstretch.com for next Thursday’s edition of Fanning The Flames.

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