Junior's split with DEI fuels fan speculation

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Opinions about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s announcement that he'll be leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. were flowing quicker than the beer in the Darlington Raceway infield on Thursday.

Granted, things were still rather sedate in the infield at that point, but a mere mention of Earnhardt Jr. got the fans going.

"I just didn't think Teresa would be that stupid to let him go, I really didn't. She made a mistake."
-- Fan Marilyn Brown of Florence, S.C.

Ray Strobush, a fan of both Earnhardt Sr. and his son, wasn't thrilled to hear that the namesake was leaving the company founded by his father.

"I think it kind of stinks, but whatever it is, it is," said Strobush, of Titusville, Fla. "I'm hoping he'll go get the No. 3 and go race for [Richard] Childress. I'm not really [surprised].

Marilyn Brown, standing by the same motorcoach as Strobush, said she knew there was tension between Earnhardt Jr. and stepmother Teresa Earnhardt, who has run DEI since her husband's death in 2001, but was still a bit surprised.

"I just didn't think Teresa would be that stupid to let him go, I really didn't," said Brown, of nearby Florence, S.C. "She made a mistake. But that's her ballpark and Junior's going to do well. Go Junior. We're behind him 100 percent. Wherever he goes, we'll be there behind him. & [DEI] should be his company. He'll have everybody's support. Fans are backing Junior, they're not backing Teresa -- she doesn't drive a car."

Jerry Eason, wearing an Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt and hat, thinks Teresa Earnhardt should have found a way to retain the driver for whom DEI was built. He was surprised a compromise wasn't reached.

"She had everything to lose and he had everything to gain," said Eason, of Santee, S.C. "I'd like to see him wind up with Richard Childress or his own race team ... JR Motorsports."

The move will cost Eason some money.

"I have to change my wardrobe and change the paint job on my race truck and stuff like that, but wherever he goes, that's where I'll go," said Eason, who competes in mud racing in a Pro Modified truck.

He said he wears his Earnhardt Jr. shirts to work and will just have to phase in Junior's new apparel gradually.

Marty Boehmer of Wilmington, N.C., said he was surprised that Earnhardt Jr. simply announced that he'd be a free agent. He thought the driver would announce his new destination. A fan of the sport and not any one particular driver, he thinks the move will benefit Earnhardt Jr.

"[DEI] is there, but it's not quite [championship caliber]," said Boehmer, who knows it's a giant move for the driver in a number of ways. "When you venture out from under the wing, you just hold your breath and hope for the best.

"I hope it's a good move for him. It's just too bad they couldn't work things out. It would be better for everybody if they did, but they didn't. But that's family."

Reaction wasn't limited to the racetrack, either, taking center stage on sports radio in Charlotte, home base for virtually all of NASCAR's top teams. One fan flying from West Springfield, Mass., offered his opinion at Charlotte's airport before starting the drive to South Carolina to attend this weekend's races.

"I said years ago, after his dad passed away, that he'd either be out on his own or back in some form or fashion with Richard," said Phil Guazzaloca. "The best thing monetarily for Childress Racing and for Junior is to take the sponsorship that would come with Budweiser, GM Goodwrench and the heritage of No. 3.

"NASCAR is all money. It takes money to win. You can't put more money together than that."

Guazzaloca, who said he was at Daytona International Speedway when Earnhardt Sr. won the 1998 Daytona 500, believes Earnhardt Jr. would find a comfort level with Childress that he apparently couldn't reach with Teresa Earnhardt.

"His son will trust Richard," Guazzaloca said. "Uncle Tony [Eury Sr.] can only take him so far. Richard knows how to get there [a championship] all the way. I won't be surprised if he winds up there, or in some kind of affiliation with somebody that can take him to a championship."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.