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.

It may be why every other owner in the garage is searching for ways to catch a company that won half of last season's 36 Cup races and a second straight championship with Jimmie Johnson.

"I try not to burn any bridges," Hendrick said. "I think I'm as close to any driver that's ever been here. I still help Kenny Schrader. I talk to Ricky Rudd. Darrell [Waltrip] and I are friends. I try not to have conflict and I try to honor the people that's made this place what it is.

"Ricky Rudd's wins counts. Geoff Bodine's wins counts. They all count, and they're all a part of our heritage and the history of our company. If everybody had the same philosophy [Earnhardt Jr. would] still be over there."

Earnhardt isn't at DEI because he didn't want to be anymore. It didn't cross his mind that for the first time in his career he was participating in media day somewhere besides the hallowed grounds in Mooresville, where he grew up.

He found it more odd that he was posing for pictures at HMS with Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears.

"Not so much Casey," Earnhardt said. "I could see me and Casey working together. I never thought I would be working with Jeff. The way him and my dad were competitors, I felt I would always be his competitor. So it's very strange and it feels strange."

Earnhardt, as was expected, was the focus of the HMS visit. He had more than twice the number of reporters around him during interview sessions as Johnson.

Not that Earnhardt wants it that way. He would trade all of his popularity for Johnson's two titles.

"There's been a lot of references to me coming over here," Earnhardt said. "It's sort of taking over the headlines here so to speak. I'm not real comfortable with that. I'm just trying to come in and do well.

"I don't want to give them the opinion that I'm trying to steal the limelight, and those guys are well deserving. Jimmie has been the champion the past two years. It's a big story going into this season seeing whether he can three-peat. That's the story."

Perhaps. But the story on this day and much of the week has been about Earnhardt. Questions about the move to HMS have been brought up at every stop, from Petty Enterprises to NASCAR's Research and Development Center.

France opened the tour saying it would help sagging television ratings if Earnhardt started winning, something he hasn't done in more than a year.

Earnhardt, who has seen and heard just about everything since he broke into Cup racing eight years ago, was blown away.

"Maybe he's trying to send me a message to get off my butt," he said. "But it's pretty impressive him saying that."

Saying that started a line of questioning that Jeff Burton of RCR wished he hadn't been a part of when it was suggested Earnhardt's impact on NASCAR ratings was similar to Tiger Woods' on the PGA Tour.

"Oh, don't put that on me," he said.

But Burton admitted that Earnhardt has an impact on such things.

"It's an interesting dynamic because Tiger, he's won so much that people want to see him," he said. "Junior hasn't been able to achieve the things he wants to achieve. I'm not saying he can't. He will. I think he's going to have his best year ever. I truly believe that.

"But his fan following has a lot to do with emotions, and it's hard to replace emotions. He is the sport's icon's son. He has a dynamic personality. He attracts the old and the young, male and female. What's interesting to me about him is he represents the pop culture and country culture. He's something to everybody. That's a hard thing to duplicate."

But Burton insisted the sport is much stronger than one person.

"If it's not, then we have major problems," he said.

Kurt Busch of Penske Racing said Hendrick's decision to sign Earnhardt was smart even though it cost his younger brother a job.

"Dale Jr. is a machine," he said. "He's a machine driving. He's a machine marketing."

He got no argument from Kyle Busch, who landed at Joe Gibbs Racing.

"Hendrick going out to get Junior, yeah, they're making money," said Kyle, whose career at HMS was split between controversy and greatness. "Hell yeah it was a smart decision. I wasn't making them any money. I was costing them money. I would agree to that."

But the younger Busch doesn't want to get into a rivalry with Earnhardt any more than Siegel wants to be reminded that Earnhardt is at Hendrick. He just wants to make Hendrick look bad for choosing Earnhardt over him.

"Exactly," Busch said. "That's what I'm looking forward to doing."

Busch has some insight into what Earnhardt should expect at HMS. He says there's no way the son of the seven-time champion can be anything more than the organization's third driver as long as Gordon and Johnson are at the top of their game.

"He better win," Busch added. "I don't know how many he better win, but he better win."

Earnhardt wants to win. He wants to prove he's one of the top drivers of all-time so the next time NASCAR releases its 50 best he's on the list.

If he does that, then he'll be honored somewhere, whether it's the lobby of DEI or the NASCAR Hall of Fame that is being constructed in downtown Charlotte.

"The unfortunate part of the whole process was it had to happen," Earnhardt said of his departure from DEI. "I didn't want to be there anymore regardless of where I was going to go. It ended OK. It's unfortunate that's part of the process to get where I am now."

David Newton covers NASCAR for He can be reached at