LOUDON, N.H. (AP) – Two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip will not return next season after five years with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

“It was a totally mutual decision between me and the company,” Waltrip said Friday at New Hampshire International Speedway, where he’ll race Sunday in the New England 300. “It’s sad to say that I’m not going to be driving for DEI anymore.”

The 42-year-old driver said the decision came after several months of stops and starts. He said one of the reasons he decided to leave was uncertainly over the company’s direction. Waltrip is delighted to have Tony Eury Jr. as his crew chief, and would certainly consider taking him to another team.

“I was hoping that I could have Tony Jr. back again,” he said. “I was never told I couldn’t have him, but was never told I could.”

The younger brother of three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip got all four of his career victories driving for the team founded by the late Dale Earnhardt and now headed by his widow, Teresa.

Waltrip’s first victory came in 2001, when he crossed the finish line at Daytona International Speedway moments after The Intimidator was killed in the fourth turn while trying to finish third behind Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The departure of Waltrip could cost the team continuing sponsorship with NAPA Auto Parts. Still, DEI vice president Richie Gilmore said in a statement that the company is talking to NAPA about extending its deal.

NAPA has been Waltrip’s only DEI sponsor, and he has been its most recognizable spokesman. Waltrip believes the company might go with him to another ride.

“NAPA obviously has a lot invested in me and a lot invested in DEI,” he said. “They were hoping there was some way we could stay together.”

Waltrip has been the most entertaining pitchman in NASCAR for several years. Like most drivers, he routinely drops the names of several sponsors into interviews, but does it with a sense of humor others seem to lack. He and his brother also have a long-running comedy routine in which the retired Darrell is constantly disappointed when Michael refuses to let him drive his Aaron’s-sponsored Busch series car.

But for all his commercial success, the younger Waltrip wants to be known more for his driving. He just doesn’t know where he’ll be working.

“We’ve talked to a lot of people about what next year might look like,” he said. “There are no real offers, just people interested in what I might do.

“I want to get in a car I can believe I can win with, like the one I got out of.”

He refused to criticize Teresa’s handling of the team.

“Dale and Teresa gave me an opportunity with a winning organization,” Waltrip said earlier in the day in a statement issued by DEI. “My professional relationship with DEI is ending, but my personal relationships have ties that are deep-rooted.”

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