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Thursday, May 17, 2007
Leaving DEI a gutsy move by Earnhardt Jr.

By Marty Smith
ESPN.com

Exactly one week has passed since Dale Earnhardt Jr. triggered the NASCAR Richter scale with the seismic announcement that his tenure at Dale Earnhardt Inc. officially had come to pass -- a landmark decision that set off a landslide of residual effects.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. fire up the No. 3 made famous by his dad? Not yet, says Marty Smith.

Earnhardt is the most sought-after free agent in professional sports. It is unheard of for a driver to walk away from a solid, stable ride without another ride lined up. While hundreds of drivers are scrapping and clawing just to find -- or if they're lucky, maintain -- an opportunity, Earnhardt has his pick of opportunities.

And at the pinnacle, no less.

No driver in history has had so much leverage. Few athletes in history have had so much leverage.

It took Junior five years to quantify that. I'm not so sure he fully understands it yet. And it's really not as much about quantification as it is acceptance.

He finally accepts that he has that sort of power. And he'll soon have tangible evidence.

When a man can walk into a boardroom wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and with a straight face slide a sheet of paper across the table with whatever number he pleases, and be taken completely seriously, he has substantial power.

This isn't about money for Earnhardt, but he's going to make a mint. He'll have the highest salary of his career, possibly the highest in the sport's history. He owns the NASCAR licensing business, and that sea of red will migrate with him to his new destination.

He'll be able to activate business opportunities he had to shun in the past. He'll be in the best equipment of his life.

It's too bad that couldn't happen at DEI.

Everyone wonders where and when the communication ultimately broke down between DEI and JR Motorsports. Or was it really ever there in the first place? It wasn't Max Siegel's fault. He told me if he'd had more time he'd have been more successful in this negotiation. I believe him. Were it not for him, it's hard to believe the negotiation would have lasted this long.

Everyone wondered whether this was business or personal. And what would Big E think? But most of all, everyone pondered whether the stars were out of line.

This was a NASCAR Armageddon of sorts -- a battle of wills, perceived as good versus evil, for the ages.

Crickets. Bewilderment. No one dreamed it could come to this, and yet here we are, contemplating Junior's next move all day, every day.

It's the biggest story in NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt died.

Folks at the gym and the grocery store and the gas station want the latest scuttlebutt. It's the water-cooler topic in the South. Everyone has an opinion and unabashedly shares it while pumping gas and iron.

Those opinions, believe it or not, are among Earnhardt's chief concerns. How would his decision be perceived by fans, media, coworkers, peers? That's who he is. He cares deeply about that stuff.

Would people view him as an ingrate? Would they feel he'd forsaken his father, left the family business to stall in his draft?

Or might they applaud him for stepping away, realizing his unprecedented leverage and standing up for himself for a change?

Ninety-five percent of the e-mails received in the past week were supportive.

Here's my take: A man can drive himself mad trying to make it work, but he can give only so much, and for so long, before the realization hits him that it's beyond reconciliation.

The man did what he had to do under the most emotionally exhausting circumstances possible. And walking away because it's best for him is much, much gutsier than staying put in hopes it would get better.

Marty,

What are your thoughts on why Teresa Earnhardt has not addressed this mistake of hers with the media? I think she needs to step up to the plate and say something. Dale Jr. has shown her all the respect and has not bashed her once. If she wants DEI to grow after her tactical error she better start being seen and heard from.

-- Denise, Michigan

Teresa Earnhardt rarely speaks publicly, and when she does she doesn't take questions. I feel like her public statement said a lot, Denise. She found a way to put it back on Junior.

Hey Marty,

I know we are all sick of hearing about the DEI-vorce and WWJD (What Will Junior Do), but I have a question for you. Everyone keeps throwing around the fact that he could go to teams such as Hendrick, Gibbs, RCR, etc.

The big consensus of the media is that he will go to Hendrick. But how can that happen? Hendrick already has four teams. I didn't worry about it at first, but the media is like a dog with a bone on this one. Is it really an option, in your opinion? Aren't all the Hendrick drivers under contract through 2008?

-- Mears Fan, MIA

By all means it could happen, Mears Fan. And if it does, I personally believe it would be in the No. 5 before the No. 25. Just my opinion.

This is unsubstantiated and, again, solely my opinion, but I don't think Kyle Busch is fully enthralled with his position at HMS. Just a hunch ...

Marty,

To me there's only one question here: Was Junior's decision to leave DEI personal or professional?

-- Mark D., Knoxville, Tenn.

Both. Fact is, he wants to win right now. But there's a deep-seated disdain between him and his stepmother that truly came to a head in December when she told the Wall Street Journal he needed to choose between being a race-car driver and a celebrity. That ticked him off.

He rebutted by describing the relationship now as the same it was when he met her at age 6, giving a stark indication of just how fractured this thing was.

Marty,

Huge Earnhardt-turned-Harvick fan here. I'd be in heaven if Junior got in the 3! That'd bring it all full circle. Is he going to do it? Please say yes.

-- Rick Thompson, Fayetteville, N.C.

Not yet, Rick. On down the line it's probable, but I get the sense that Junior doesn't feel worthy of driving his father's number just yet. I think he wants to be a champion first, so that his entrance into the No. 3 isn't perceived as a publicity stunt. He wants to be fully credentialed and unquestionably legit before he fires up the 3.

Now the 33? That's a different story entirely. To me, Richard Childress Racing is still the best fit, though I'm a traditionalist and as a fan I'd love to see Junior drive for RCR. Talk about the ol' man grinning that mustachioed grin.

Take that for what it's worth -- Junior certainly isn't requesting my consultation on the matter.

One major hang-up with RCR, though, is sponsorship. Could Jack Daniel's and Budweiser coexist? If they're given that opportunity to do so, they'd be crazy not to find a way to make it happen. Competitors have existed under the same roof before -- Roush Racing, for example, boasts DeWalt and Irwin as primary team sponsors.

Junior has said, though, that his decision isn't contingent on Budweiser's sponsorship. The union is too perfect, though. He is Budweiser. They know that, and are fully committed to doing everything possible to extend the relationship.

Marty,

I can't help but wonder: If DEI fails to recover from this, will Dale Jr. be able to sleep at night? I understand Dale Jr. has to do what he needs to do, but can he live with destroying his father's company?

I like to think DEI will recover but I never thought Junior would leave, either. This will take DEI years to recover [from] when (I feel) the company is still trying to overcome Dale's death (just ask RCR). I don't think Dale would give Junior his blessing to possibly destroy the family's company. My opinion: Dale Jr. made a mistake.

-- Mark, Racine, Wis.

First of all, Junior's decision won't "destroy" DEI. If DEI fails it's not solely on Junior. Earnhardt wants to see DEI succeed. He respects the employees and wants Richie Gilmore and the boys to carry on, to excel. He just couldn't get what he needed. Junior said it best: If Big E were here we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Hey Marty,

What do you think the odds are of Budweiser stepping in and purchasing the No. 8 from DEI so Junior could still ride in it for a different team? I mean, Teresa likes money right?

-- Brandon, Fremont, Calif.

That's an unrealistic scenario, Brandon. Sponsors, aside from Red Bull, don't own the car numbers. NASCAR owns the numbers and sells the licensing rights to them to the owners each year. For Junior to drive the No. 8, Teresa Earnhardt would have to agree to relinquish the rights of the number to another owner.

That isn't likely to happen.

Hey Marty,

With Dale Jr. now testing the free-agent market, I wondered how driver contracts are really structured. With many of them earning tens of millions of dollars per year, how exactly is that money paid out?

Do the drivers get any of their winnings? Do the owners just pay them a flat salary? With licensing and apparel, does the driver get all of the proceeds or do they share that with the owner? Does the driver earn any money from their sponsor in terms of bonuses or incentives?

Obviously, each driver's contract may be different but I wondered if you had a general idea as to how most of them work?

-- Chris Hall, Ankeny, Iowa

Great question, Chris. There are four main parts to a driver's total annual income -- salary, percentage of weekly winnings, licensing and personal endorsements.

Elite drivers make north of $5 million annually just to sit in the driver's seat each Sunday, plus somewhere in the vicinity of 45 percent of the team's total purse from each race. Licensing and personal endorsements vary by the driver.

Time to bail out for this week. My boy, basketball in hand, beckons.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.