It’s official. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., will not drive for his late father’s race team again in 2008.
Earnhardt confirmed this morning that he will leave Dale Earnhardt, Inc., at the end of this season, after lengthy negotiations with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt failed to lead to a new contract. "We worked really hard, but we were never close," said Earnhardt of the talks. "After a year of intense negotiations...it's time to move on and drive for a new team in 2008."
NASCAR’s most popular driver said he has no idea where he will race in 2008, but made it clear that money is not a major motivator. Commenting on the bidding frenzy that will almost certainly erupt for his services, he said, “It’s not the guy who gives me the biggest paycheck. It’s the person I feel like will allow me to accomplish what I want to in my career. There are some things you can’t get with money; (like) peace of mind and satisfaction in what you do everyday. I want to go somewhere and really make things happen for somebody.”
Just two hours after a reportedly emotional meeting with DEI personnel, in which he revealed his decision to leave for the first time, Earnhardt said his departure comes with mixed emotions.
"I'm sad that I have to leave some employees that I got close to, (and) leave some relationships. (But) at 32 years of age -- the same age my father was when he made his final and most important career decision -- it's time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships.
"I believe I'd have my father's blessing."
Earnhardt said his vision of how DEI should prepare for the future differs dramatically from that of Teresa Earnhardt, leading to his decision to look elsewhere. While acknowledging that his announcement will result in some hard feelings at DEI, he pledged to do his best in his final season there.
“We're going to finish this year out, and I told my guys we're going to run hard,” he said. “I don't want any excuses for us not giving our best effort. I plan on giving everything I've got like I always do, and hopefully that's what I'll get in return."
Teresa Earnhardt did not attend her stepson’s press conference, but released a statement saying, “While we are very disappointed that Dale Jr. has chosen to leave the family business, we remain excited about our company's future. Dale and I built this company to be a championship contender, and those principles still apply. Dale Earnhardt Inc. will win. ... This company has a great legacy and a bright future, built on loyalty, integrity and commitment."
Earnhardt, Jr., fended off repeated questions about where he will land next, saying he plans to listen to all offers before taking another step. He did not discount the possibility of fielding his own team out of the JR Motorsports stable, but sister Kelley Earnhardt Elledge called that option, “our last choice,” adding, “if that was necessary, that would be what we would do. (But) I believe our first choice would be to drive for another top, competitive team.”
“We’re going to listen to everybody,” said Earnhardt Jr., stressing his desire to continue his longstanding relationship with Chevrolet. That pares the likely options to Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, and perhaps Ginn Racing. Gibbs, RCR and Ginn all have room for a new team under NASCAR’s new four-car limit, while Hendrick would have to make space for Earnhardt.
Hendrick Motorsports GM Marshall Carlson told Sirius Speedway this week, “We’ve got four strong drivers that are on contract here beyond `07, four string sponsors that are on with us beyond `07, and we’re squared away on this end. Who wouldn’t want to be involved with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in some capacity? He’s quite a driver, and a good person. But we’ve got our four folks set, and our sponsors set, beyond `07.
Mike Dillon, Vice President of Competition for RCR, made it clear that his company is interesting in talking to Earnhardt. "He's a great race car driver,” Dillon said. “I believe he can win races and championships, and we could provide that for him here. His fan base and popularity will certainly make any deal attractive. We'd love to have him, but you would have to be prepared. We have championship caliber teams already, and have to be careful not to upset the existing situation.
"Certainly, we would love to have him. I hope we're that lucky.”
Asked about his stated interest in driving his father’s former #3 one day, Earnhardt said, “I've got to do a little soul searching (to do) on how I feel driving the No. 3 car."