Earnhardt’s future at DEI still in limbo


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s battle with his stepmother heated up Monday when NASCAR’s most popular driver said his future with the family company could hinge on their rocky relationship.

The latest issue centers around comments Teresa Earnhardt made almost a month ago when she publicly questioned Junior’s commitment to winning.

“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 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Earnhardt had initially refused to respond to the remark, which stirred up a frenzy in a NASCAR community all too aware that his contract with Dale Earnhardt Inc. expires at the end of this season.

But as the first session of preseason testing opened Monday at Daytona International Speedway, the driver made it clear that the comments stung.

“I was trying not to get involved in it, (but) I really didn’t appreciate it,” he said. “Whether she was taken out of context or not, I just didn’t really appreciate it.”

So just how are things between the two since the comments? Strained, at best.

Earnhardt has not spoken to his stepmother since the article came out because “I figured if anything needed to be said, she’d call me up and say it.”

But in reality, the phone lines haven’t exactly been burning up for several months – if not years.

There’s long been a perception that the relationship between Teresa and Junior is frosty – at best – and Junior did nothing to dispel that on Monday.

“Teresa is my stepmother, and I have a mother at home that I have a very good relationship with,” he said. “Mine and Teresa’s relationship has always been very black and white, very strict and in your face … it 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. 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.”

Teresa Earnhardt is widely considered an owner in absentia, making very few appearances at the race track and granting even fewer interviews. Richie Gilmore, director of motorsports at DEI, handles most of the at-track issues, and Teresa Earnhardt recently hired Max Siegel, formerly head of Sony BMG/Zomba Label Group, as president of DEI’s global operations.

And as Earnhardt and Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, his sister/business manager, continue to move ahead in contract negotiations to keep Junior behind the wheel of the No. 8 Chevrolet, company representatives have replaced Teresa Earnhardt at the most recent bargaining table.

Gilmore called her absence from the negotiations an effort on Teresa Earnhardt’s part to keep the sessions businesslike.

“It’s something she’s kind of removed herself from,” Gilmore said. “She thinks it’ll happen faster, maybe if she takes the personal side out of it. Junior lets Kelley handle it, and Teresa has people on the outside handle it, and she thinks it will go a lot faster that way.”

Maybe, but it doesn’t seem as though this latest contract extension is shaping up to be a slam dunk. The last three-year deal Earnhardt signed didn’t come easy, with Junior holding firm in his desire to reduce the number of required personal appearances worked into the deal. The negotiations dragged on for months before the two sides finally came up with a number he was willing to agree to.

Now there’s a much larger issue at his hand: Junior’s desire to take over at least partial ownership of the company his late father founded in 1996. Many believe Dale Earnhardt started the team as something his children would someday run, but Teresa inherited the business when the elder Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

She’s controlled everything since then, including the rights to Earnhardt Jr.’s name, which she only relinquished to him last summer. But Junior wants more than that, and sounded Monday as if he’s prepared to walk if he doesn’t get it.

“I want to be very involved in the company, but I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” he said. “I want to win championships. Particularly, I would love to own DEI. Aside from that I have no interest in ownership.”

And if he can’t get a stake in DEI? Well, Junior just might take his firesuit elsewhere.

“I just want to drive races and win championships and hang it up one day and not have to worry about whether I have enough money in my retirement fund,” he said. “Just give me a good race car and make it run fast and give me guys I can enjoy working with, and I’ll go to the racetrack and I’ll do whatever you need me to do with the sponsors and everything else.

“Just don’t make everything a hassle and don’t make everything a pain and you’ll have my dedication and everything else you need as far as a driver goes.”