As it turns out, Dale Earnhardt Jr. never wanted to be a NASCAR driver more than he did on May 10, 2007 when he stepped to the microphone and announced that he would be leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the conclusion of the season. In essence, he was declaring his pending free agency and opening the bidding for his services. He was severing ties with the only racing organization he has ever driven for. Playtime was officially over. It's time to fulfill his potential; it's time to win championships.
Earnhardt Jr's decision to leave the organization built by the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. furthers his commitment to winning races and championships. Professionally, his decision to leave was a clear indication that DEI simply was not competitive enough against the powerhouse teams led by Hendrick Motorsports. But personally, his decision to leave surprised everyone involved -- including Dale Jr.
The contract negotiations between Earnhardt Jr. and the company led by Teresa Earnhardt were contentious over the past few months. Earnhardt Jr. had asked for a majority ownership interest in DEI. It was a request that he felt his father would have wanted. But it was simply impossible to know his father's wishes since the company has been controlled by Teresa since 2001. There was no succession plan in place for Dale Earnhardt's children. And that might have been Big E's most glaring mistake.
"This company has a great legacy and a bright future, built on loyalty, integrity, and commitment," Teresa Earnhardt said in a statement after Dale Jr. announced he was leaving. Let's talk about loyalty, integrity, and commitment for a minute. Earnhardt Jr. loyally committed himself to DEI since he began his racing career. In the beginning, he was racing on simple handshake contracts. After his father's death, his contracts were put in writing. He didn't call out the company's ownership in interviews with the Wall Street Journal. He showed up and raced to win. That was his job as the dominant public face of DEI. Some weeks were better than others, but his committment could never be questioned.
Teresa offered 51 percent of the company to Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the negotiations in 2007. However, that 51 percent came with a steep, overvalued price tag. It was an offer that Earnhardt Jr. could -- and did-- refuse. It might have been in Teresa's plans for Earnhardt Jr. to eventually take over DEI. But that takeover came with a hefty price. If there's one lesson that Earnhardt Jr. learned from the negotiations is that nothing comes without a price-- in one form or another.
As a "free agent," Earnhardt Jr. has made his aspirations to remain in the Chevrolet camp crystal clear. That limits his options to some degree, but it shouldn't limit his earnings. Realistically, there are two owners who can offer Earnhardt Jr. what he wants. The first is Richard Childress who has expressed interest in a fourth Cup team. The other is Rick Hendrick, though that would likely entail a satellite operation through JR Motorsports with Hendrick providing engines and other technical insight. Joe Gibbs Racing has a spot open, but Earnhardt Jr. would be bringing the high-dollar sponsorship of Budweiser. An alcohol sponsor is not something Joe or JD Gibbs would welcome. Money does speak volumes, but that situation would be a severe longshot at best. The likely spot is RCR, which would mirror his father's career path when he was the same age as Earnhardt Jr. is now. The Earnhardt/Childress combination combined for 6 championships from 1986-1994. It may be time to add to that legacy.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. would probably be disappointed by the chain of events that led to his son leaving DEI. But he'd probably also be extremely proud of his son stepping up to the plate to protect his own interests. After all, if you don't look out for yourself, nobody's going to do it for you. Cutting ties to everything he used to know is a bold move, but it was the necessary decision to reach his potential in a sport he's dedicated his entire life to. But there are some ties he will never be able to cut, namely the ties of character traits. Dedication, loyalty, and committment -- three traits that sum up Dale Earnhardt Sr. Like father, like son.
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