DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. The two-month, ongoing soap opera surrounding the negotiations and relationship between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt took a dramatic turn Thursday.
Junior made a startling pronouncement during his media day interview that made it clear why his contract negotiations with Dale Earnhardt Inc. have plodded along.
"I want majority ownership, that's basically it," Earnhardt said. "I want more than 50 percent, absolutely."
It's as simple as that.
"The main factor is the ownership part," Junior said. "It has nothing to do with money or nothing else, really. I really like my team, I like the way things are going, Max [Max Siegel, DEI president of global operations for DEI] is going to be great for the company, the motors are improving.
"Everything's on the upswing, but my father's been gone for five, six years now, so I want majority ownership."
Teresa Earnhardt has removed herself from negotiations, leaving Siegel and DEI vice president of racing operations Richie Gilmore to try and craft a contract with Dale Jr. and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge.
So is Teresa willing to budge on the ownership issue?
"We'll see," Junior said, smirking.
What reporters saw Thursday was seemingly the next step in the evolution of Earnhardt as a shrewd businessman, much like his father and, his step-mother. He knows the value of his name, his bloodline and the legacy that he tries to live up to, so his thinking is he should get what he feels is truly his.
That's why he's been particularly forthcoming with the media in the last month about the ongoing negotiations for a new contract at DEI. In a sense, Teresa Earnhardt fired the first salvo in the war in mid-December when she questioned Junior's commitment to the team and the sport in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Those comments cut to Junior's core.
"It was a little like, 'low blow there,' for me," he said.
Even though he's said several times he didn't want the contract situation to be played out on newspaper pages or on the 10 p.m. sportscast, he also knew that the media ultimately could do more for him in his quest than he could do sitting across from Teresa Earnhardt at a negotiating table.
"I tried to do good and stay professional in my comments," Earnhardt said. "I tried to portray my feelings to [the media] but try to keep the bitterness out of it. At times, you get bitter. But being the younger guy in the whole mess, I tried to stay professional.
"I've actually taken a lot of that stuff [media reports] to help form my position and opinion. You don't like public opinion or media opinion to sway your decisions, but in this case, I have a real bad habit of being way too modest about my position in the sport and a lot of people, including the media, helped me understand what I'm actually worth."
Junior might be learning his worth, but his position actually might not be all that formed. Only minutes before proclaiming he wanted a majority stake in DEI, Earnhardt Jr. all but dismissed any desire to ever be a team owner on the Nextel Cup circuit.
"I really don't want the headaches of being a Cup owner," said Earnhardt, who has owned a Busch Series team for three years. "I'd just assume drive, save as much money as I can and retire. I want to race a long, long, long, long time. The older I get, the better I feel better about my ability to compete longer, not run into the burnout part and just wanting to get out of it.
"But once I'm done driving, I really don't want to do anything else as far as ownership. That may change. As I get older, it might turn into something."
In the meantime
Regardless of ownership status, Earnhardt intends on going out Feb. 18 the sixth anniversary of his father's death at Daytona and win his second Daytona 500 as a possible precursor to finally winning the Nextel Cup championship.
But when asked if he grows more concerned with each passing year that comes and goes without that coveted title, Earnhardt intimated that the Cup championship isn't necessarily the be-all and end-all.
If, like Mark Martin, Earnhardt goes through his entire career without winning the title, he's OK with that. But he also understands what a title would mean to his legacy, his critics and fans.
"Probably, in a lot of people's eyes, it would help a lot to validate my career, but me personally, I won't carry any burden with me if I don't," said a particularly conversational and open Earnhardt. "As a race car driver, I come in here and I compete. Winning the championship is the ultimate goal and I go as hard as I can for it. I haven't done it yet, but I try to do the right things to win it."
He spoke at length that just being where he is today a successful driver, albeit one who has yet to win the sport's biggest prize is much further along in the sport than he ever envisioned he'd be.
"I didn't ever think I'd be good enough to race full-time, I didn't ever think I'd be good enough to hold down a job as a driver, I didn't think I'd ever win a race in the Cup level. I just never thought I was going to make it," Earnhardt said. "I looked around and people that had followed their father's footsteps into this sport [had] limited success in that.
"So, I just never counted on it. I had no goals set as a driver. Then I raced late models and never won anything. It was basically a hobby."
But he has found success with DEI, the company his father established in 1996 primarily for Junior and his brother and sisters.
Now the former military school student has gone on to become NASCAR's most popular driver four years in a row and succeed his late father as the face of the sport whether he wanted to or not so it's understandable that he wants a controlling interest in DEI.
This is Junior's time, in his mind, to take the reins.
"I've already accomplished more than I ever thought I would. I've shook hands and met people and went places and done things that I never thought I'd see or do," he said. "I have quite a lot of fond memories of my career up to this point already, and I don't even think I'm halfway yet.
"I've got a lot of years left on focusing on winning that championship, and hopefully it does happen." http://sports.yahoo.com/nascar/news?...yhoo&type=lgns