CONCORD, N.C. -- After a rival driver called Teresa Earnhardt a "deadbeat owner," Dale Earnhardt Jr. was put in the uncomfortable position of sticking up for the stepmother he's often at odds with.
At a Tuesday night media session designed to outline Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s 2007 season goals, Junior was pointedly asked to respond to comments Kevin Harvick made earlier in the day about the perception that Teresa Earnhardt is an absentee team owner.
"It's hard when you have what I call a deadbeat owner that doesn't come to the racetrack," Harvick told reporters during a stop at Richard Childress Racing.
"You always see Richard Childress. You always see Chip Ganassi. All these owners, they all come to the racetrack. It's not just a money pit that somebody says, 'Well, I can make money off of Dale Jr. I can make money off of Dale Earnhardt,'" Harvick said.
Earnhardt, who is in the final year of his contract at DEI and currently participating in tense negotiations for a new deal, squirmed on the podium as he was asked to respond.
"You're killing me," Junior grumbled. "That's ridiculous. I don't think there is a comment for that remark."
But instead of letting the moment pass, Earnhardt -- often too open and honest for his own good -- attempted to defend Teresa, who took over Dale Earnhardt's company after his 2001 fatal accident on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
"Like I said in the past, with everything that's happened, not just to the company but to the family over the past five years, she's had a full plate," he said. "The things that she's responsible for, willingly and unwillingly, are very important. For a long time, the battle with [Earnhardt's] autopsy photos, all those things, that's just the tip of the iceberg of things that she's been responsible for.
"That's probably been one reason why she hasn't been as visible at the racetrack and whatnot. But she's taking care of things that are much [more] important," he said.
Earnhardt and his stepmother have had an up-and-down relationship for most of his life, and the frostiness between the two was revealed publicly last month when Teresa questioned his commitment in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
"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," she said in the Dec. 14 story.
Junior finally responded two weeks ago, when he said their relationship "ain't a bed of roses," that the two had not spoken since she made her remark and that Teresa would factor heavily in whether he re-signs with his father's company.
The two have since spoken, although Junior characterized the conversation as a brief one. And he said contract negotiations are ongoing and he hoped to "have something in the next couple of months."
Although Teresa Earnhardt was at the news conference, she made only a 49-second opening remark to introduce Max Siegel, DEI's new head of global operations. As Siegel stepped to the microphone, Teresa quietly slipped off the stage and disappeared behind a black curtain.
Siegel then asked the large media contingent to keep the questions focused on the upcoming season and away from the contract controversy.
"With respect to contract negotiations with Dale Jr., I wanted to make it very clear that DEI has every intention of re-signing Dale to a long-term deal," Siegel said. "We're in good ongoing discussions and hope to announce something soon."