Earnhardt's popularity puts him in driver's seat

5/14/2007 - NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't say where he would drive next when he announced Thursday that he is leaving the company his father built after this season, but he certainly narrowed the choices.

He wants to go to an organization where he can compete for a championship and remain in a Chevrolet. That makes Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing the most obvious choices.

He also wants to keep Budweiser as his primary sponsor, which likely would knock JGR out of the mix.

"Personally, it would be hard for us," said team president J.D. Gibbs, referring to the company's stance on companies that sell alcoholic beverages. "[Budweiser] is a great partner in the sport, but for us it would be tough."

Gibbs also said the organization isn't looking to expand to four teams next season, saying, "We know how hard it is to add a team and we're in no big hurry."

If you want to narrow it down even more, Hendrick Motorsports is at the Nextel Cup maximum with four teams and all four drivers are locked into contracts, with negotiations to extend Kyle Busch's deal expected to be finalized soon.

But there are ways around that with Jeff Gordon half owner of Jimmie Johnson's team. Casey Mears also could become a target in the No. 25 car if his performance doesn't improve to the level of Gordon, Johnson and Busch, all in the top 10 in points.

Team owner Rick Hendrick is fishing in the Florida Keys and the organization declined to comment.

RCR would be an obvious choice. Earnhardt is the same age (32) that his father was when he joined Richard Childress to drive the No. 3 in 1981.

Since Earnhardt would lose the right to his famous No. 8 -- that belongs to stepmother Teresa Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- the No. 3 at RCR is an option.

Childress, unavailable for comment, also has made it clear that if negotiations break down with Dale Jr. and DEI that he would like to get involved.

"I've got to do a little soul searching on how I feel driving the No. 3 car," Earnhardt said during his press conference in Mooresville, N.C.

Childress also has talked about expanding to a fourth team outside of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer.

"It would be awesome," Bowyer said. "He could bring so much to the table on and off the track. I like him as a person. He's a really good driver. He would be a huge asset to our organization."

Earnhardt would be a huge asset to any organization. NASCAR's most popular driver is by far the leader in merchandise sales and his program with Budweiser ranks second only to the sponsor's Super Bowl program.

He was such a big part of DEI that experts in the field estimate the company -- worth $57 million according to Forbes magazine and larger than that according to others -- will decrease at least 50 percent in value with his departure.

Earnhardt is 19th on Forbes' list of the highest-paid athletes at $20.1 million per year. He is No. 1 among Nextel Cup drivers, with Gordon No. 2 among Cup drivers and No. 23 overall at $19.1 million.

Also, Earnhardt's deal with Budweiser is one of the largest in the industry. Although the pact with DEI ends after this season, Earnhardt has a personal-services contract that runs through 2008 and the company would like to keep its brand on his car.

"Look in the stands on a week to week basis and the dominant color is red," said Dean Kessel, the series marketing director for Sprint Nextel. "Anytime Dale moves toward the front and you hear the crowd over the roar of the engine, you know what's happening.

"Obviously, his impact is great in this sport, from television viewership, sponsorship, ticket sales. He's certainly an important piece of this sport."

Said Gibbs: "He's Dale Jr. He can do about whatever he wants to do. He'll have a lot of options."

Those options could include one of the smaller Chevrolet teams, such as Ginn Racing, which has been highly competitive with Mark Martin using HMS engines.

Or Hall of Fame Racing, which is supplied by Gibbs.

But the more likely options are Hendrick and RCR.

"Those are the obvious choices," said Greg Biffle, who is renegotiating an extension with Roush Fenway Racing. "But who would have thought Mark Martin would go to [Ginn] and do well? That opened people's eyes to what all the options are."

Biffle said he was shocked to hear DEI let Earnhardt get away. He was not shocked to hear Earnhardt wants to go to an organization capable of winning championships.

"Dale Jr. is a great race car driver," he said. "I'd put his abilities lateral with about 10 of the top guys in the sport. The thing that he produces above the rest is his popularity."

But the one thing that was clear during Earnhardt's press conference was money isn't the motivating factor, so don't expect this to become a huge bidding war.

"Most teams have about the same amount of money," Biffle said. "All the drivers really want, including myself, is an opportunity to win every week and win championships.

"That's truly what we care about. The compensation is a factor, but normally in a situation like this, not that big of a factor."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.