After months of speculation about his contract status with the organization that his father founded, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced today that he is leaving Dale Earnhardt, Inc. at the end of this season. Earnhardt Jr., who started his racing ...
After months of speculation about his contract status with the organization that his father founded, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced today that he is leaving Dale Earnhardt, Inc. at the end of this season.
Earnhardt Jr., who started his racing career with DEI in the Busch Series in 1998, said that his decision to leave the race team came down a fundamental disagreement about how to put him in a position to win races and championships.
"We both worked extremely hard to find common ground," Earnhardt said from his JR Motorsports shop in Mooresville, NC on Thursday. "We both want to be and get to the same place, but we both had different visions on how to get there. I felt it was best for both of us to move on and focus on our future. It's time for me to compete on a consistent basis and compete for championships now."
Throughout his long, well publicized contract negotiations with his step-mother Teresa Earnhardt, President of DEI, Earnhardt has been quiet about his contract demands, but today made it clear that they couldn't come to an agreement.
"We worked really hard, but we were never close," Earnhardt said. "I am a little sad, but I am trying to remind myself to be excited about what's ahead."
Despite being the most popular driver on the circuit, the 32-year-old Earnhardt has yet to display championship form at the sport's highest level. He has 17 wins since becoming a Cup regular in 2000, but his highest finish in the championship standings was third in 2003. He struggled through a frustrating 2005 season that ended with a 19th place finish in the standings before rebounding to make the Chase for the Championship and finish fifth last year.
He is 12th in the point standings this year, with just one top-5 finish in 10 races.
"Obviously a lot of my fans wanted me to continue driving for DEI," Earnhardt said. "Hopefully I can go and accomplish the things that I want to accomplish and put on the show that I think I can put on and give my fans more to celebrate. I feel like over the last year or two that I've short-changed my fans. I'm hoping to win some races and win some championships to give those guys what they pay all of that money to come see us for."
Earlier on Thursday, Earnhardt addressed the employees at DEI to let them know about his decision.
"It was really hard talking to the employees and talking to my team," Earnhardt said. "I don't expect those guys to understand fully. I told them that whatever their opinions or emotions are were fair. I told them that I wanted to run as hard as we could for the rest of this year and that it's important to me that we ran as good as we could. I think we owe it to DEI to give our best effort each week and that I hoped that they would feel the same way."
Earnhardt admitted that leaving the company that his father started was a difficult decision, but believes that it is in his best interests as a driver.
"Obviously if he was still here, I think we would all be in a different place right now," Earnhardt said. "This decision is made based solely on my driving career, not my personal interest in my involvement with DEI. It's what my father conceived and built with his hard work and we want to see it continue to be successful. We still want to see that company work and succeed."
Earnhardt left the door open for him to return to DEI after his driving career has concluded.
"It may be in the cards 20 years down the road," Earnhardt said. "I believe DEI can still be successful. It may not be the exact thing that my father wanted, but I feel like it can be successful. It's important to me that my father's legacy continues."
Speculation now turns to what team Earnhardt will sign with for 2008. The obvious choice is the revitalized Richard Childress Racing for which his father enjoyed most of his success. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. won six of his seven Cup championships during his 18 year partnership with Childress.
Earnhardt Jr. is sure to be the most sought after commodity in the history of the sport.
"We'll see what opportunities I have," he said. "We haven't had a moment to sit down and talk about what our opportunities are and think about where we would be most comfortable. I've never been in this position before so I don't know what to expect. I can't sit here and tell you that one thing is out in front of another. We're just going to look at everything clearly and look at what we think will be best for us."
Despite the disappointment about not being able to sign a new contract with DEI, Earnhardt is optimistic about the opportunities that his announcement will lead to.
"I made this decision to put myself in a better position next year and down the road, Earnhardt said. "I feel strongly that I would have my father's blessing."