Junior-DEI contract story the talk of NASCAR

The clock is ticking for DEI. Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains loyal to a fault, writes Marty Smith, but a monster payday awaits him if he decides to test the open market.

Updated: April 29, 2007, 5:42 AM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ongoing contract negotiation with Dale Earnhardt Inc. is one of the hottest stories in all of sports in 2007, and most certainly is the story of the year in NASCAR thus far.

But where does it rank all-time among the most important deals in NASCAR history?

"It's up there in the top-10," Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler said Tuesday with an affirming nod. "The magnitude of the publicity it's already generated -- and there hasn't been that much news coming out about it -- is evidence of that."

"[Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s] in the driver's seat right now -- as far as this whole sport is concerned."
-- Humpy Wheeler

Wheeler is a fine judge. He's been around the sport a while -- try more than four decades. He knew Junior's father well, and was a champion for Dale Earnhardt long before any trophies adorned the mantle.

Wheeler watched Junior grow from a timid boy into a namesake nearly as influential as his father was. (The old man could sway NASCAR on competition-related decisions. Junior says he doesn't like a bump in a track and the track fixes it.)

"He's in the driver's seat right now -- as far as this whole sport is concerned," Wheeler said.

If Earnhardt hits the market, owners will congregate so quickly and so giddily you'd think ABC was shooting "The Bachelor: NASCAR."

Could that really happen?

Absolutely.

Personally, I'm not sure he wouldn't already be gone if he weren't so loyal to his father's vision -- the kids running the company. Wheeler agrees that's the holdup.

"It may be [an impediment] -- he's very loyal," Wheeler said. "And that is a big family and has far-reaching tentacles. I think that's why this thing's taking so long."

When it comes to that which he's passionate about, Junior is loyal to a fault. And he's passionate about his family and his father's legacy. So he's trying to work it out. He calls negotiations with DEI president Max Siegel "enjoyable," and says they're plodding along.

Siegel's toughest task is convincing Junior he can win.

He wants to win championships, and he wants to do it in the No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet.

"That's the whole thing," Wheeler said.

Right now, though, DEI isn't in the same league with Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress. Every now and again, yes. Like at Texas, Junior had the best car, period. But on a consistent basis they can't compete with the big boys.

They need to wrap up this negotiation soon or the big boys are gonna come calling.

Hey MartDawg!

Maybe this time I'll get lucky and you'll answer my question. I'm a little concerned about Casey Mears this season. Jeff, Jimmie, and Kyle are the ones to beat right now. And then there's Casey.

I was thrilled that Hendrick put him in the No. 25 car, but I have been disappointed in his running as of late. What does this team need to do to turn this season around? Thanks!

-- Teri Pope, Kenansville, N.C.

Mears' luck is ridiculous, Teri. He didn't finish one lap at Texas before he was in a wreck. He made it 42 laps at Phoenix. At Martinsville the sway bar bolt backed out of the left-front sway bar. You can't drive a race car without a sway bar.

The issues aren't of Mears' doing. Rick Hendrick understands that. Mears has been fast in the Busch Series car. I asked the team for comment on how to improve the No. 25 team and was told they needed time, time for Mears and Darian Grubb to build chemistry and time for the team to jell.

I do think, though, that Hendrick Motorsports will continue to change out personnel until it gets the proper combination on that team. And I don't mean Grubb, either. Grubb is a bright, young crew chief. He is not the problem. Mears is not the problem. Both are frustrated, but given time I believe they'll be a formidable combo.

Hey Marty,

The TV announcers are always making a deal of, "If we can see the debris, we'll show you." Often times, they can't show you. This makes no sense to me why every debris can't be on camera. Ok, so maybe they can't find the debris for the first few seconds on their own.

But, if it's out there as NASCAR says it is, someone has to be given orders to go out on track to the specified location, and pick it up. Why can't the TV cameramen just wait and follow the track cleanup crew until they see someone get out and pick up the infamous debris?

Tape delay it 'til after the commercial, but show the debris. It is out there, isn't it? Anything that is simply blown by the blower trucks can't be worth/heavy/dangerous enough to throw a caution, can it? I'm not a [Tony] Stewart fan, but I'm starting to agree with him.

Something doesn't smell right, and it isn't Harvick's foam doors.

-- William, Goodlettsville, Tenn.

First of all, Stewart isn't saying anything others aren't saying -- he's just saying it publicly. Drivers joke about phantom cautions all the time, and there isn't a week that goes by that we don't sarcastically "analyze" it in the media.

But NASCAR is serious about this: If there is so much as a hint of debris that they feel could pose danger to competitors, crews or fans, they're going to throw the caution and rectify the situation. They don't care what anyone else's opinion is.

I see all sides of this. I love a guy who says what he thinks, especially in the vanilla society that is the NASCAR garage. But I also totally understand and respect what NASCAR's Jim Hunter said (I am paraphrasing, here): There are hundreds of drivers across this country who would sever a limb to sit in Tony Stewart's seat, and he shouldn't lose sight of that.

Marty,

Not too sure that you will get this or even read it, but I figured I would give it a shot anyway. I am a huge Dale Earnhardt fan and have been since the age of 4. I am now 26. I am a loyal fan but not one of those psycho-crazy fans.

I would like to give Jeff Gordon a lot of credit for showing the class that he did after winning the race in Phoenix. By no means, am I a fan of Gordon but I do respect his abilities as a driver, and I now respect him on a different level for the respect he showed Earnhardt.

It was awesome and very classy. I just wish that the ones who were throwing debris at him could have seen it the same way. Thanks for your time, Marty.

-- Bryan Libby, Hilliard, Fla.

Couldn't agree more, Bryan. Gordon's tribute was awesome. With a chuckle, Junior said his dad would get a kick out of knowing that the No. 24 team rode around with that No. 3 flag for 26 weeks.

How great was Junior's response to the Gordon haters, by the way?

"I don't understand the disrespect -- what's the angle there?" Earnhardt said. "When you win a race, it's all about you at that moment. You won, you're happy, you're excited, you're the best of the best. And [Gordon] decided to split that down the middle, 50-50, and give my father some respect, and take half of his moment and give it to my dad. I thought that was really classy."

Junior was also asked about the prospect of Gordon surpassing his father's victory mark this weekend in the heart of Earnhardt Country -- Talladega, Ala., -- and the thunderstorm of beer cans that might ensue:

"It ain't cool at all," he said. "Go out in the parking lot and wail a couple beers at your car. Don't throw them at my car or anybody else's, for that matter. Take a couple shots at your own. I think it's ridiculous, to be honest with you."

Marty,

It's good to see the success Childress Racing is experiencing this season, and I think Jeff Burton is a big part of the success. Could any team ask for a better teammate than Jeff Burton?

Other teams have teammates who drive for the same owner but aren't true teammates. Burton is the guy who really brought the team concept to Childress Racing and now has [Kevin] Harvick and [Clint] Bowyer on the same page. A championship is in the near future for Childress, and the beauty of it is it could be any of the drivers.

-- Joe, Chicago

No question, Joe. The moment Burton showed up at RCR, a new cohesiveness was instantly forged. He was human Super Glue for a fractured company.

Childress and Harvick have both commented about that in the past -- and that was before Burton resumed his winning ways. Before he came to Childress, Burton hadn't won in several years. Some folks said he'd lost it, was washed up, and that he left Roush for Childress as a last-ditch effort to ride around for a couple years, collect some dough before calling it a career.

He never lost faith in his ability. Childress knew he still had it, too, given the right equipment. The end result? A reinvigorated organization. You're right, too. Harvick and Burton are bonafide championship contenders. And once Bowyer learns how to win at the Cup level, look out. That kid is smooth.

That's it for this week -- keep 'em coming, please. Off to 'Dega, beads in hand.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.