Longtime sponsor could have say where Junior goes

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is so determined to win a Nextel Cup championship that he would consider driving a car without Budweiser on the hood if that's what it took to get with the right team.

No, Earnhardt hasn't discussed leaving the company that has become synonymous with his name.

In a perfect world he would remain with Budweiser for the rest of his career because it has become as much a part of his image as his last name. It's a big reason why he's featured in "Rolling Stone" and "Playboy" and not "Family Circle."

But NASCAR's most popular driver, according to sources close to the situation, won't renegotiate a contract with the beer company until he gets a deal with another organization.

That means you can't completely count out Joe Gibbs Racing, which is philosophically opposed to connecting itself with an alcoholic beverage.

"When the time is right we'd love to sit down and talk to him and see what their plans are, but right now we're just focusing on what we're doing," team president J.D. Gibbs said Saturday at Darlington Raceway.

You can't count out any of the top three Chevrolet organizations -- Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing -- or a couple of the satellite organizations with which they are associated.

Ginn Racing, which surprised the racing world when it signed Mark Martin away from Ford, has thrown its name into the Junior lottery. Ginn has Hendrick support and an owner, Bobby Ginn, with enough money to bid with anyone.

But as competitive as Ginn Racing has been with Martin it would have to be considered a long-shot because the organization hasn't proved it can win on the consistent basis to get Earnhardt Jr. the title he wants.

Even general manager Jay Frye admits that.

"We're a dark horse in this, we know that," he said.

What's clear is this won't be settled over the next two weeks. It likely will be June or July before the son of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt decides his future.

This won't be a simple deal even if Earnhardt Jr. keeps Budweiser as his sponsor. RCR officials said there are potential conflicts of interest because of the company's association with Jack Daniels.

There are potential conflicts because of Ginn Racing's association with the U.S. Army.

It's doubtful any of these would be deal-breakers because the value of Earnhardt Jr. will override the value of other sponsors.

But this won't be a quick process.

When Earnhardt Jr. said he wanted to take a week or two before getting heavy into negotiations he meant it. That doesn't mean his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, won't address preliminary inquiries.

The team already has had preliminary inquires from most of the teams that believe they have a realistic shot at a deal. Gibbs insisted his team hasn't gotten that far, again saying the Budweiser association would make it "a hard deal for us to do."

Gibbs also said it would be hard to expand to a fourth team.

What nobody asked was could Earnhardt Jr. be a good fit for the No. 18 car driven by J.J. Yeley.

"All I have to say is that I'm kind of watching it unfold like you guys are," Gibbs said. "Sounds like he and Kelley, they're on the same page and they'll make a good decision.

"You know, you daydream about what a good situation is to you personally, and hopefully I can find that."
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"They'll have a ton of opportunities. If the time is right, we could talk to them about that. But right now, we're just going to focus on what we're focusing on and let that fall where it may."

One of Earnhardt Jr.'s options would be to form a satellite team with HMS or JGR support. Gibbs, who began JGR with Hendrick support, isn't sure that would get Earnhardt Jr. close to a championship anytime soon.

"I'd just say it would be hard," Gibbs said. "They know all of that. If that's something they chose to do I'm sure they could get backing for it, but it would be awfully hard to do."

And Earnhardt Jr. wants to win a championship, but that wasn't the only reason he left the company his father built to become the biggest free agent in NASCAR history.

He left ultimately because Teresa Earnhardt, his stepmother and the owner of DEI, wanted too much money for the 51 percent of the company that Earnhardt Jr. sought.

When Earnhardt Jr. said the sides weren't close to a deal he meant it because he wasn't willing to pay for something he felt his father wanted him to have.

So he left, making sure he said the right things about the company to help ensure his father's legacy but not willing to compromise his own beliefs.

Now he'll take his time trying to make the best decision for him.

"I'm excited about what my opportunities, possibilities may be," Earnhardt Jr. said. "You know, you daydream about what a good situation is to you personally, and hopefully I can find that."

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