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Full Throttle: Junior’s Stepmother & the State of the Sport Spoils the Happy Ending For the No. 8

It was announced this week that the No. 8 will be staying at DEI for the foreseeable future, and therefore will not be on the side or roof of Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s car next year when he begins driving for Hendrick Motorsports. Much to the disappointment of Riki Rachtman and the majority of Junior’s legion of fans, an agreement could not be reached between DEI and Hendrick Motorsports that would allow the number to be transferred over to Hendrick so that Junior might be able to continue driving with the number for at least the next five years of his career. According to Junior, the stumbling block in the entire process was his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt. Try as he might, it appears that Junior is going to be haunted by his stepmother for at least the rest of this season.

This dispute has been going on for years, but has just become public since the announcement of the fact that Junior is going to leave DEI at the end of the season. A large part of the population of Junior Nation feels like Teresa is being unreasonable in her demands or her refusal to acquiesce to Junior’s demands to receive a controlling interest in the organization that bears his father’s name. That opinion is not very fair to Mrs. Earnhardt if you consider the amount of time and effort she has put into the organization. Yes, the company bears the name of her deceased husband, but it is rather well known that Teresa was the driving force that built the company from the ground up. Obviously the company could not have been formed were it not for the capital that was infused into the organization in its formative years by the man whose name is on the door, but that was the primary part that Dale Senior played in the company. The elder Earnhardt had extraordinary demands on his time during his career and he was not able to spend much time focusing on building a fledgling organization into a Cup-contending race team. That is where Teresa fit into the picture.

Mrs. Earnhardt was the brains behind the building of the company. Anything that was presented to have the Earnhardt name marketed on it, was passed through her. She approved all licensing and she handled all of the day to day operations of the company. It is not a stretch to look at this conflict objectively and be able to see where Teresa is coming from. She has built one of the top-five organizations in the sport from the ground up, and now her stepson, with whom she has never had a great relationship; demands that he be given the reins to run HER company however he would like. Even if their relationship was a good one, it is still a rather unrealistic request for the top driver of an organization to suddenly demand the keys to the front door and expect the person who has spent over 20 years making the company what it is to just hand them over.

Junior is certainly a good driver and is unquestionably the most popular driver in the sport, but neither of those items qualify him to be the person who calls the shots and runs a multi-million dollar organization, let alone while he is attempting to compete for a Cup championship and fulfill all of his sponsor obligations. Don’t forget that he also has his own race organization in JR Motorsports. It seemed to be quite overly optimistic of Junior to think that he could take on that additional responsibility and be successful in all phases of his life.

With all of that being said, the question now comes down to the car number. Again, Teresa has done an outstanding job of making the No. 8 into the formidable merchandising juggernaut that it is. Obviously Junior and his popularity were huge factors in the development of the popularity of the number, but the marketing and merchandising that was steered by Junior’s stepmother was equally important in cultivating the top merchandising number in the sport. To expect Mrs. Earnhardt to just give up the millions of dollars of revenue generated by that number without some sort of compensation is unrealistic. The amount of compensation was ultimately the undoing of the deal, and whether Teresa’s request was unreasonable or not is up for debate, but that appears to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in this whole process.

Teresa wanted to have part of the revenue that was generated by the number on a continuing basis, and also wanted to have the number returned to her organization when Junior was finished with his career. The result of that demand was that Junior felt like he was still going to be under the control of his stepmother, whom he is trying hard to distance himself from by this move away from the organization. Should Teresa be allowed to benefit from the efforts of Hendrick Motorsports marketing and merchandising the number that Junior is going to drive? It is hard to say, but Mrs. Earnhardt has worked for seven years to put more No. 8 merchandise in the stands than any other number in the garage area, and she felt like she should be compensated on an ongoing basis to let that number leave her organization.

The only other aspect of this dispute that rings deep and true for Junior is the history of the number. It was the number that his grandfather raced throughout his career, and the number that his father drove several times in Busch Series competition during his career. Teresa does not have any kind of familial connection to the number and Junior feels as though that connection should supplant the monetary desires for the number. In the modern world of NASCAR, history and tradition are continually being trumped by the almighty dollar, and it certainly would have been refreshing to see someone in a position like Teresa’s put the greed aside and let the number go to allow Junior to continue the family tradition. Unfortunately, Teresa tends to always focus on the bottom line and could not see past the dollar signs that the number will generate, so the number is going to stay with DEI.

There is no doubt that the number is not going to carry the same clout with a different driver in the seat next year. The odds are that merchandising revenues for the number will fall to probably 1/10th of what they are at this point in time, but it will still be more revenue than DEI would have realized if they simply let the number leave to follow Junior over to Hendrick Motorsports.

It is sad to see that Dale Junior is going to have to run a different number during his tenure at Hendrick. Who knows, maybe after the sting of this breakup dies down a little bit, Teresa may back off on her demands and Junior can start running the number again in the future. As it stands now, Junior is very upset that he is not going to be able to run the number that his father and, more importantly, his grandfather made famous. He is certainly not going to be sending his stepmother a Christmas card as things look right now. But unfortunately it is the common denominator in the sport right now; it is all about money, a business rather than about history and tradition.

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