No surprise re-signing Junior taking some time

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If Teresa Earnhardt is half the marketing guru people proclaim her to be then she'll have WWJD bracelets in a NASCAR trailer near you soon.

No, not "What Would Jesus Do?"

"What Will Junior Do?"

Make them Budweiser red.

Sell them for a buck.

If NASCAR has 75 million fans as it claims and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a third of them, which is more than reasonable since he's been the sport's most popular driver the past four years, then Teresa will have more than enough money to re-sign her stepson.

Not that anybody seriously should believe Earnhardt will leave the company his father built when his contract expires after this season. Dale Earnhardt Inc. can't afford to let Junior go any more than Disney can afford to part with Mickey Mouse.

DEI has 23 wins since it was formed in 1996. Junior has 17, with Michael Waltrip collecting four of the other six at the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega where DEI cars are dominant.

Junior has eight wins over the past three seasons. The other six drivers who have competed in at least one race for DEI have none.

He also has the contract with Budweiser, which surely would follow if he went elsewhere since that deal also expires following this season.

Without Earnhardt the organization wouldn't be much better than those at the far end of the garage struggling to be competitive.

But until Earnhardt re-signs, with a tentative deadline of midsummer, Earnhardt's future with DEI will get more attention than a Britney Spears night on the town.

Like Spears, it'll be more hype than reality.

Earnhardt has been negotiating to re-sign since last summer. He's given no indication he'll leave the company, something his sister and JR Motorsports executive Kelley Earnhardt Elledge reaffirmed Thursday on a Sirius Satellite radio show.

"We are continuing to negotiate with DEI and it is our hope and intent that we can remain a driver there for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and to carry on what my dad has started in the late '90s, but we haven't come to terms on anything yet," she said.

"It's our hope that we have something about midyear that we can announce our direction and maybe even sooner if we can get things worked out. It's just a very lengthy process. There are a lot of variables for all of us to contemplate."

No kidding. Earnhardt is by far NASCAR's most marketable driver. That it could take six months to a year to work out the details should come as no surprise.

There will be more i's to dot and t's to cross in his next contract than our forefathers had in the original Constitution of the United States.

The guess here is the deal will include some sort of ownership of DEI since Earnhardt has said on numerous occasions he'd like to run the company.

Don't look for the sometimes tumultuous relationship between Earnhardt and Teresa, who took over the company when her husband was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, to get in the way.

Teresa is too smart to let that happen, although her comment in the Dec. 14 Wall Street Journal didn't earn her any points for Stepmom of the Year.

"Right now the ball's in his court to decide on whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or whether he wants to be a public personality," Teresa told the Journal.

Elledge said she and her brother were surprised by the comment. She also said they haven't spoken to Teresa about it, so they couldn't be too upset.

"Most everybody in the industry knows that Dale's focus has been at its highest," she said on Sirius. "His No. 1 desire and his passion is driving that race car and that'll never change.

"He's not interested in the business and the personality in the way that he is with the race car. And I don't think any of the drivers are. When you're a race car driver your passion is the excitement and what you get out of the feel of that race car."

That doesn't mean Earnhardt won't continue to pursue interests outside of racing, from building his own Busch Series team to hosting a weekly radio show that he admits is the highlight of his week.

Those outside interests are in part why he has become so popular that DEI can't afford to lose him. He, not his father, is Dale Earnhardt Inc. now.

"It's obviously the perfect fit in terms of family, in terms of the fans, in terms of the sport and what all that means to the sport," Elledge said. "So if we can work out all the things on the side of competition and our endorsements and sponsors and how we work together and partner with them, that is the best scenario."

Meanwhile, Teresa needs to get started on those WWJD bracelets.

And once Junior signs she can always donate them to the church as a tax write-off.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.