- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2007

So what happens now? Is this the way Dale Earnhardt Sr. would have left things? Hardly. He was known as “the Intimidator,” not “the Whiner.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. yesterday painted himself into a corner, one that he is going to find very difficult to get out of without inhaling a lot of exhaust fumes, which he is probably used to by now.

The 32-year-old driver, named after one of the sport’s most successful, famous and popular performers, yesterday cut the links with the firm his late father founded, Dale Earnhardt Inc., when he couldn’t get his way. He had been negotiating a new contract for a year and when nothing to his liking turned up, he said he was going elsewhere at the end of the season.

There has been a lot of that negative stuff going on in Junior’s life lately. He didn’t win at Richmond last weekend so he complained bitterly about the track, the only one of 43 drivers to do so. He hasn’t finished in the money in NASCAR’s new Car of Tomorrow so he labeled that a disaster (one team has taken all four COT races and most other drivers are not experiencing the problems Junior believes he is).

He has said dealing with his widowed stepmother, Teresa, president of DEI, “is no bed of roses,” as if he were the first employee to ever have an issue with a supervisor. It was Teresa Earnhardt who last January told Junior to either step up and be the race driver he appears to have the talent to be, or step back and be a personality. That stung.

The Earnhardt contract and introduction of the COT cars were the top stories entering NASCAR’s season, now 10 races into its 36-event campaign, but the personable Junior has moved COT and all other issues to the back burner. His own act will be a tough one to follow and he set the stage himself.

For instance, at yesterday’s press conference in Mooresville, N.C., Junior continued to burn bridges, not a wise thing to do when one is not a consistent regular in the playoff picture. He said he would prefer to drive only for Chevrolet, which on the spot eliminated potential employers running Fords, Dodges and newcomer Toyota. He also said he would prefer not to start his own team, reducing the bidding for his services even more.

In a nutshell, that leaves Chevy-backed Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing, the latter with a huge inside edge as a potential employer. Junior’s father drove for Childress and won six of his record-tying seven NASCAR championships there. There is little doubt Childress would make a spot for Junior.

But that might be the only opening with an established operation with the resources to push for a championship. Hendrick has a full house of drivers, led by Jeff Gordon, the current points leader, and Gibbs is not thought to be fond of adding a major sponsor pushing an alcoholic beverage, even if the driver is a Washington Redskins fan.

Junior drives the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy, one of the most instantly recognized sports symbols in the industry because of Bud’s heavy advertising campaigns and Earnhardt’s ability to usually stay in contention. Bud’s contract with DEI is in its option year but Junior is under a personal services contract through 2008, a deal he takes to his next employer.

Earnhardt also brings popularity with him — he has been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for the past four seasons and based on fan reaction recently when Gordon surpassed Earnhardt Sr. for victories in the series, he will retain his popularity no matter whom he drivers for.

Popularity might not win many races, but it sells a lot of products. Earnhardt trinkets of every description have been among the industry’s top merchandise movers since his father’s death in 2001 and that kind of bottom line erases a lot of whining about bad track surfaces and cars that would turn — for him at least — in corners.

It is that factor Junior appears to be counting on, because he hasn’t found much success lately. He had six victories in 2004, just one the following season and only one last season. This year he has none and is in 12th place in the points derby, the last spot in the playoff picture.

It is a corner he painted himself into.

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