MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- "We've decided it's time for us to move on and seek opportunities to drive for another team in 2008."
With that declaration, Dale Earnhardt Jr. began to end his relationship with the only team he had ever driven for, the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team his late father founded in 1998.
"At 32 years of age, the same age my father was when he made his final and most important career decision, it's time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships now," Earnhardt said at a news conference. "I believe I'd have my father's blessing."
His decision is sure to set off a bidding war for NASCAR's most popular driver, though Earnhardt said Thursday money will not be the deciding factor in his decision.
"Money's not really the issue. It's not the guy who gives me the biggest paycheck," he said. "There's some things you can't get with money: peace of mind and satisfaction."
The ability to win races and compete for championships will be equally important factors, said Earnhardt, who has 39 race wins (including 22 Busch Series wins) and one Daytona 500 victory since his 1996 debut -- but only two race wins and 18 top-five finishes in 82 events since 2004.
"I feel like over the last year or two I've shortchanged my fans," he said. "I'm hoping to win some races, win some championships to give [the fans] what they pay all that money to go see us for."
Earnhardt, who is in the final year of his contract with DEI, had been negotiating a new deal all season with DEI. Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, Dale Jr.'s sister, is his manager and chief negotiator.
Earnhardt had said he wanted controlling interest in DEI -- at least 51 percent -- so he could make the necessary decisions to help DEI reach the championship level.
But the bargaining turned tense after Teresa Earnhardt, who is DEI's owner and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s stepmother, publicly questioned his commitment, and Junior later said their relationship "ain't a bed of roses."
So he'll move on, starting what should be a frenzied free agency period that could shake the sport by causing long-term ripple effects in driver salary and sponsor deals.
He's already NASCAR's highest-paid driver, earning $20.1 million per year, a million more than No. 2 Jeff Gordon.
And the bidding has already begun.
"704-662-9642, tell him that's my phone number," said car owner Chip Ganassi, who lured Juan Pablo Montoya away from Formula One this season to drive one of his Dodges.
Earnhardt repeatedly said he thought everything would work out for him to remain at DEI as the driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. Earnhardt has 17 Cup victories in his career. He is currently 12th in the Nextel Cup points race.
"We worked pretty hard putting something together [with DEI] and that was our intention from the start," he said. "I'm disappointed, so I expect my fans to be disappointed."
In a statement, Teresa Earnhardt said the team will thrive without Junior.
"While we are very disappointed that Dale Jr. has chosen to leave the family business, we remain excited about our company's future," she said. "Dale and I built this company to be a championship contender, and those principles still apply. Dale Earnhardt Inc. will win. ... This company has a great legacy and a bright future, built on loyalty, integrity and commitment."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said though he and DEI worked hard to find common ground, "As negotiations continued one thing became evident -- we both wanted to be in and get to the same place, but we had different visions of how to get there."
But given numerous opportunities to criticize DEI and Theresa Earnhardt, Dale Jr. declined.
"Trust me when I say DEI will come out of this successfully," he said. "I feel that Max [Siegel, DEI's president of global operations] is going to be a huge asset to that company. ... When he starts moving and shaking, things will really start happening for that company."
Even when asked to compare DEI's current efforts and vision to his late father's vision, Dale Jr. would not take the bait.
"Obviously, if he were still here we would all be on a different place right now. He was a great race car driver but he was totally focused and devoted to the company," Earnhardt said of his father. "It would be difficult for any one individual, much less a group of people, to maintain that vision. He was the only one that was able to make it a reality, you know?"
Any team or manufacturer could be considered a contender for Earnhardt's services, but he has said he would like to stay with Chevrolet. Chevy has won nine of 10 races this season and has what are generally considered three of the sport's top four teams: Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.
It's also possible that Earnhardt will field his own Nextel Cup team from JR Motorsports, where he runs a Busch Series program and
several late model cars out of a brand new shop in Mooresville, N.C. But Elledge said driving for another team is the preferred option.
"There is time to start our own Cup effort if that's what we chose to do," Elledge said. "We have our work cut out for us to engage ourselves with other teams and listen to what the opportunities are. ... Our first choice would be to drive for another competitive Cup team."
Among Chevrolet teams, Hendrick Motorsports, winner of seven of the past eight Cup races, is already maxed out with four teams but could assist Earnhardt by leasing him engines. Hendrick already leases motors to Ginn Racing and Haas-CNC Racing, and Earnhardt recently got to feel their horsepower when he jumped into Kyle Busch's car during a race last month.
Richard Childress Racing, where the elder Earnhardt won six of his seven championships, always has been considered the most logical place for Junior to go. Childress and Dale Earnhardt were extremely close, and Junior has maintained a relationship with the car owner.
RCR, which owns the No. 3 should Junior ever want to drive it, can add him as the fourth and final driver NASCAR permits each owner. It would team him with Kevin Harvick, who replaced the elder Earnhardt following his 2001 death, and has invited Junior to join the organization.
"I've got to do a little soul searching on how I feel driving the No. 3 car," Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt agonized over his decision and said telling DEI's employees on Thursday morning was one of the hardest things he's done. Underneath his party-boy persona, Junior cares terribly what people think and worries his father's fans will feel betrayed by this defection.
It's why he asked Darrell Waltrip, a friend and former rival of his father's, to fly in from Nashville.
His mother, Brenda Jackson, said her son struggles to understand his place in the sport.
"He never wants to upset anybody," she said. "As long as Dale Jr. is racing, the Earnhardt legacy is alive."
It's also possible that RCR would lease JR Motorsports its engines should Earnhardt field his own team. RCR already gives JRM its engines.
"I believe our first choice would be to drive for another top, competitive team," Elledge said. "Our last choice would be to form our own Cup team. If that was necessary, that would be what we would do."
"We're going to listen to everybody," Earnhardt added.
The wild card could be Joe Gibbs Racing, another powerful three-car Chevy team that would pair him with buddies Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin. Earnhardt and Stewart have worked wonderfully together on restrictor plate tracks, and Earnhardt befriended Hamlin early in his career.
Joe Gibbs is coach of the Washington Redskins, and Earnhardt is a diehard fan. He wore a Redskins cap backward Monday during a test session at Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he expressed frustration over the NASCAR-mandated Car of Tomorrow and admitted DEI can't keep up with Hendrick's COT program.
But speaking after practice Thursday, Gibbs didn't sound as if his team is in the mix.
"I think anybody in the sport would be interested in Junior," Gibbs said. "It's just that I'm sure he's got a game plan and probably has a real good idea where he's going right now."
Earnhardt insists he and his sister will choose the team that gives him the best chance to win.
"I'll just have to see what's out there for us," Earnhardt said. "We're going to listen -- it doesn't cost anything to listen -- so we're going to listen to whoever has a conversation with us, and move from there."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.