Junior playing right cards in ongoing contract talks

Want to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. bristle? Just ask him what happens if he doesn't get 51 percent of Dale Earnhardt Inc., writes Terry Blount.

Updated: April 13, 2007, 9:00 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. wouldn't go there when asked Friday about his contract status.

"I try to pick and choose my words. I make sure when I make a comment, especially something meaningful to me, that I get my point across. I've been able to push things a certain way."
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Within five minutes, Earnhardt went from funny to serious to a little ticked off, each time offering the response he wanted for the subject involved.

Being NASCAR royalty has taught him what to say, when to say it and how to make the most of his words.

First, the funny part. Earnhardt was asked his thoughts on the repairs made to improve the dip at Texas Motor Speedway.

"I read about how they fixed it [drilling holes and adding putty to raise the asphalt]," Earnhardt said. "I never heard of that. It's sort of like implants for tracks."

Earnhardt often comes up with little quips that you don't expect. And he's one of the best in NASCAR about answering tough questions, but one question came up Friday that he didn't want to answer.

In fact, he was downright belligerent about it.

Earnhardt and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, his chief contract negotiator, continue to insist he wants controlling interest in Dale Earnhardt Inc. as part of any new deal he signs.

They haven't backed down one inch from that demand. But there's something no one was asking. Not until today, that is.

What if DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt and DEI president Max Siegel simply refuse to give Earnhardt 51 percent of the company?

"It's hypothetical and it's ridiculous," Earnhardt said.

Is it? What if stepmother Teresa thinks Earnhardt is bluffing? What is he prepared to do?

"I don't want to make any speculations," Earnhardt said. "We're trying to work that out to where we can stay in the red Bud car. Answering a question like that isn't going to help me any in my negotiations."

He could be right on that one, except for the red Bud car part. Budweiser will go wherever Earnhardt goes.

But making threats to leave DEI isn't a good idea if you believe everything is going to work out, especially when you've already made a mini threat.

Elledge, who still is recovering from a recent surgery, said this week that the clock is ticking. Six weeks remain, in her estimation, to get a deal done.

"I don't know if we'll get there," Elledge told ESPN's Marty Smith of an extension. "It's hard. When you start talking about the piece of ownership for Dale in [Dale Earnhardt Inc.], that's part of my business, too. That's part of [half brother] Kerry's business. That's part of [half sister] Taylor's business.

"There's a whole lot of dynamics that play into it all."

Dale Earnhardt Jr
Matt Slocum/AP PhotoDale Earnhardt Jr. has to keep his head on straight during contract negotiations. So far, so good.

Siegel has said repeatedly said he expects everything to get worked out and Earnhardt to sign a new deal with DEI by the end of May. It's his job to say that. He's the man trying to keep things calm and moving forward.

But Earnhardt and his sister must have thought about their options when they first decided to ask for controlling interest in DEI. What if Teresa refuses to do it?

Is Junior prepared to seriously consider going to Richard Childress Racing? Would he consider going elsewhere?

Maybe it's a moot point. Maybe Siegel is right and all this speculation won't matter in a few weeks when DEI has a lovefest news conference to announce Junior is staying in the family.

But the what-ifs will continue until that day arrives, if it arrives.

Junior and his sister are playing this situation perfectly. Say enough to make everyone know you mean business. Be firm and calculating, but not overbearing and abrasive.

And Junior understands the power of his words, something he discussed Friday.

"I try to pick and choose my words," Earnhardt said. "I make sure when I make a comment, especially something meaningful to me, that I get my point across. I've been able to push things a certain way."

For example, Earnhardt was willing to push the topic about attendance woes at California Speedway in Fontana.

"Maybe the expectations were set a little high to sell out some of these races like Fontana," he said. "People in Hollywood couldn't care less. We overestimated our ability to sell that many tickets [92,000 seats] there. That's just reality. You have to face it and make adjustments to make your racetrack financially sound."

When Earnhardt talks, people listen. Ask Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage.

Earnhardt said last year that the dip between Turns 1 and 2 was a problem. Gossage heard him and made an effort to fix it.

"No offense to anybody else, but Junior is No. 1, and No. 2 is a big, big gap," Gossage said. "He is the face of our sport, the Tiger Woods of our sport.

"Look at it this way. Among NFL quarterbacks, Peyton Manning's words have a lot more impact than Rex Grossman, even though they both were in the Super Bowl. It's the same way with Earnhardt, except his words are 10 times more powerful than anyone else."

Earnhardt uses that power with restraint. He picks and chooses his moments to publicly express his opinions.

"It's a great tool sometimes," Earnhardt said. "I learned that early in my career, some good lessons and some bad lessons. A lot of times you sit down with somebody in an office face to face, but you won't get as far as using the microphone [with the media]."

Apparently, Earnhardt doesn't feel his negotiations at DEI have reached that point. He's the man with all the power. He's trying to use it wisely.

Earnhardt has learned what questions to answer and how to respond to get what he wants.

For now, saying what he will do if DEI doesn't meet his demands isn't a power play he wants to make.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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