A Solo Journey for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

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Charlotte Observer / MCT / Landov

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

To NASCAR neophytes, it might seem like the ultimate repudiation of a father-son bond, but Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s move surely would have made his father proud. Sitting next to his sister and with other family members in the audience, Earnhardt, Jr., announced Thursday what many in NASCAR circles felt never would be allowed to happen — NASCAR's most popular driver would be leaving the company that bears his father's name, Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI), as a driver at the end of the 2007 campaign.

The elder Earnhardt, who drove for Richard Childress Racing for the last 17 years of his life, started DEI in 1980 to control the marketing and merchandising side of his name and image. He was the first driver to truly take command of his business affairs and gained a reputation for being as calculating and ruthless in his dealings off the track as he was racing on it. Dale Earnhardt, Sr., wanted control over his affairs and he got it.

It was that element of control that spurred his 32-year-old son to make his move this morning. "It is time for me to continue his legacy in the only way I know I can by taking the life lessons he taught me, be a man, race hard and contend for championships. Since that is what I intend to do, I feel strongly that I would have my father's blessing."

Going into the final year of his contract with DEI, Earnhardt, working with his sister and business manager Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, said that he wanted at least 51% of the family business to continue his career there. Elledge had given a date of late May for striking a new deal or moving on, but Earnhardt said Thursday that the sides were so far apart that there was no need to wait until then to make the split official.

In a prepared statement on the DEI website, Teresa Earnhardt, CEO of DEI and Earnhardt's stepmother since 1982, said, "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."

What she failed to mention, or perhaps appreciate, is that the company let its most valuable commodity slip away. Last December, Teresa Earnhardt told the Wall Street Journal that her stepson had to make a choice between being a driver or a public personality. What that statement illustrated was not so much Earnhardt's conundrum but her own failure to recognize that his celebrity was, is and will be the driving force behind the lucrative sponsorship deals and broad-based fan support that fuel the business. In a time when even well-heeled shops like Roush Racing are looking to outside investment capital to fund this very expensive sport, DEI just lost its biggest asset. No other driver, regardless of his success, could ever be as important to DEI as was the son and namesake of its founder. His value to the company could easily be worth $100 million or more.

Also sure to be leaving DEI will be Anheuser-Busch, which hitched its beer wagon to Earnhardt in 2000. The Budweiser contract with DEI has an opt-out clause that will allow them to follow. Earnhardt also made it a point to express his loyalty to Chevrolet, whose nameplate he's raced under his whole career. The automaker has featured him prominently in its celebrity driven advertising campaigns. Were he to end up in another make, such as Toyota — which entered the Nextel Cup Series this season but has been embarrassed by poor performance and cheating scandals from the start — or arch-nemesis Ford, it would be comparable to Babe Ruth leaving Boston for New York.

"What team I drive for next season, I don't know," Earnhardt said matter-of-factly while reading from his notes, adding with unintended and almost comic understatement, "We'll see what opportunities I have. We'll see who wants to hire me, who's interested."

With that statement, the most exciting race in NASCAR this summer will now take place off the track. The storybook scenario would have Earnhardt behind the wheel of the number 3 car that his father drove for Richard Childress Racing, winning six of his seven season championships. While technically still active, that number has not been on the Nextel Cup circuit since Dale Earnhardt, Sr., died in a wreck at Daytona in 2001.

"We've seen quite a few scenarios over the past couple of days that were amusing, some right, some not so right," Earnhardt grinned when asked about the future. He then measured his words carefully as he added, "I have a great relationship with Richard. I feel that he's stepped his programs up.

The global domination theory would see him join Hendrick Motorsports in a lineup somewhat akin to having Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson all on the same team. Hendrick, which has won six of the last seven Nextel Cup races, is home to four-time Nextel Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who recently passed Earnhardt Sr. on the career wins list, and defending champion Jimmie Johnson, as well as Kyle Busch and Casey Mears. With the four-team limit on owners imposed by NASCAR, either Busch or Mears would have to go, but Dale Jr.'s appeal to sponsors and fans would undoubtedly make up for their loss. It would, however, weird out a lot of fans on the Earnhardt — both senior and junior — side, who see Jeff Gordon as nothing less than the antichrist.

But such an odd pairing is not out of the question. The only thing certain is that, like his father, Dale Jr. desperately wants to win, and like his father, he'll do whatever it takes to do it — even if that means walking away from the company that bears their name.