New Race for NASCAR's Biggest Driver

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- The large picture of Dale Earnhardt Jr. that once was dominant at the entrance of Dale Earnhardt Inc. is gone. There is no display case celebrating his 2004 victory in the Daytona 500, his 16 other Sprint Cup wins and two Busch Series championships, although there is one for part-time driver Mark Martin after less than a year on the job.

The gift shop that once was filled with red No. 8 Budweiser merchandise is void of anything connected to NASCAR's most popular driver unless you are in the market for Dale Jr. baby clothes or a DVD on how to drive a stock car.

And both are marked down significantly.

It's almost as though Earnhardt Jr. never drove for the company his father built, although to be fair a handful of his cars normally on display in the main showroom were pushed out of sight to accommodate a luncheon for the 2008 Sprint Cup media tour.

Twenty-five minutes away at Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt's new home, there were banners honoring every driver that had won a title in every series under owner Rick Hendrick. There was a glass wall listing the names of drivers for all 167 of Hendrick's cup wins.

There even was a display case for Kyle Busch, who was released so that Earnhardt could be signed.

Earnhardt doesn't know why it's that way. He wasn't aware that almost everything representing his 12 years as a Cup and Busch driver at DEI was gone.

But he doesn't believe it was done intentionally by his stepmother, DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt, who if not for their tumultuous relationship he might still be in the family business.

He doesn't blame Max Siegel, DEI's president of global operations, who worked vigorously to re-sign him.

"I don't think there is any animosity, and I don't think they would do anything to directly insinuate we're totally free of that or we don't want to have anything to do with him or we don't want to recognize his time here," Earnhardt said on Wednesday.

"I don't think there was any intention on that. I don't think Max is like that or Teresa is like that. If it is, it doesn't matter to me."

Siegel, who talked about how DEI was built around the legacy and name of the late Dale Earnhardt, insisted there was no conscious decision to distance the company from the driver who has won more Cup races than anybody under the DEI flag.

He insisted the Earnhardt legacy will be honored every race weekend by eight race teams, Earnhardt at Hendrick, the three Richard Childress Racing teams that used engines powered by DEI and RCR and the four cars at DEI.

He said the showroom cases are for active drivers only, pointing out there was nothing honoring two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip either.

"We are very proud of what Junior did here," Siegel said. "We wish him great success at Hendrick. That is sincere and genuine."

Siegel doesn't want to start the season like the last one ended, with more talk about Earnhardt than the company moving forward. That is understandable.

That Earnhardt isn't part of the landscape of DEI's buildings could be nothing more than a difference in company philosophy.

That Rick Hendrick makes a point to honor his drivers, even those with whom the relationship wasn't the best at the end, may be the bigger statement. It may be one of the many reasons HMS has become so strong that NASCAR chairman Brian France called it the New England Patriots on wheels.

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