Dale Jr.'s future with DEI up in the air

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 8, 2007

By Jenna Fryer

Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s battle with his stepmother heated up Monday when NASCAR’s most popular driver said his future with the family company could hinge on their rocky relationship.

The latest issue centers around comments Teresa Earnhardt made almost a month ago when she publicly questioned Junior’s commitment to winning.

“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 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Earnhardt had initially refused to respond to the remark, which stirred up a frenzy in a NASCAR community all too aware that his contract with Dale Earnhardt Inc. expires at the end of this season.

But as the first session of preseason testing opened Monday at Daytona International Speedway, the driver made it clear that the comments stung.

“I was trying not to get involved in it, (but) I really didn’t appreciate it,” he said. “Whether she was taken out of context or not, I just didn’t really appreciate it.”

So just how are things between the two since the comments? Strained, at best.

Earnhardt has not spoken to his stepmother since the article came out because “I figured if anything needed to be said, she’d call me up and say it.”

But in reality, the phone lines haven’t exactly been burning up for several months — if not years.

There’s long been a perception that the relationship between Teresa and Junior is frosty — at best — and Junior did nothing to dispel that on Monday.

“Teresa is my stepmother, and I have a mother at home that I have a very good relationship with,” he said. “Mine and Teresa’s relationship has always been very black and white, very strict and in your face … it ain’t a bed of roses.

“The relationship that we have today is the same relationship we had when I was 6 years old when I moved into that house with Dad and her. It’s always been the same. The way I felt about her then is the way I feel about her now.”

Now there’s a much larger issue at his hand: Junior’s desire to take over at least partial ownership of the company his late father founded in 1996. Many believe Dale Earnhardt started the team as something his children would someday run, but Teresa inherited the business when the elder Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

She’s controlled everything since then, including the rights to Earnhardt Jr.’s name, which she only relinquished to him last summer. But Junior wants more than that, and sounded Monday as if he’s prepared to walk if he doesn’t get it.