- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. barely had room to breathe on a hot, muggy Friday afternoon at Darlington Raceway as he leaned into the back of his familiar No. 8 hauler while two waves of media pressed to hear his every word.
It had been 24 hours since NASCAR's most popular driver announced he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company his father built for his children, after the 2007 season.
He'd had little sleep since with so many things on his mind, from his future employment to all the employees at DEI that his decision impacted.
"There really isn't a feeling of relief," Earnhardt said. "I didn't expect to be like, 'Wow! [That's] a big weight lifted off my shoulders.' I'm glad we're making decisions and moving forward."
The 32-year-old star learned quickly that speculation about his next team will increase the longer this drags on. He quickly denied a television report that he is close to a deal with Richard Childress Racing, where his father went at the same age in 1981, to drive the No. 33.
"It's unfair to RCR and those guys to have that going on," Earnhardt said. "They're trying to focus on what they're doing this year and what their drivers are trying to focus on and it's not fair to them to have things on the TV and the paper about speculation."
Richard Childress, who won six championships with Earnhardt's dad, also denied the report. He said there have been no conversations with Earnhardt and asked that reporters give him time to "make the decision he needs to make and be fair."
Earnhardt also asked for a week or two before he gets into full blown discussions about his future.
"Drink a couple of beers, have some fun and get normal," he said. "I've felt about as un-normal as one could feel the last couple of days and lost a lot of sleep.
"I want to just relax and clear my head, sort of get a good football stance to go after this new deal that we're seeking."
Earnhardt remained clear in his desire to stay with Chevrolet and go to a team that can contend for a championship, making Hendrick Motorsports, RCR and Joe Gibbs Racing the most obvious choices.
J.D. Gibbs, the president of JGR, told ESPN.com on Thursday it would be tough for his company to sign Earnhardt because of his relationship with Budweiser. JGR has tried to distance itself from companies representing alcoholic beverages.
Meanwhile, rumors ran rampant throughout the garage about where Earnhardt will land.
"Everybody is going to want a piece of him. He could walk around right now and say I want Toyota engines, Chevy bodies and run the Truck Series and NASCAR would go, 'Oh. OK.' "
"I've felt about as un-normal as one could feel the last couple of days and lost a lot of sleep. I want to just relax and clear my head, sort of get a good football stance to go after this new deal that we're seeking."
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
One theory is that owner Rick Hendrick will help Earnhardt start a satellite team, supplying him with the same engines, parts and pieces he uses for his own team, just as he has for Ginn Racing.
Such a deal could give Earnhardt the type of majority ownership he sought at DEI and the equipment to win a title.
"That's not necessary," Earnhardt said of ownership. "But if that's some sort of package and I feel like it's a good idea, then there may be some interest. They can make it interesting, I'm sure."
There would be fewer hoops to jump through should Earnhardt go to RCR, which has room to expand to a fourth team.
"He's got a lot of tough decisions coming up in the direction he's going, and I just think it's fair that we all let him have some space and some time to kind of think about what he wants to do in the future," Childress said.
"We will sit and talk, I'm sure. I'm hoping he's considering us. But I think right now we'll give him some time and space to do his own due diligence on the race team he's looking at."
Wherever Earnhardt goes, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. could follow. Although Eury Jr. has a year left on his contract, he said it's something he can get out of.
"I would like to stay with Dale Jr., but I'm going to do whatever is best for Tony Jr. just like Dale Jr. and leave all my options open," Eury Jr. said. "Me and Max are going to talk and go with it like that."
Eury Jr. was talking about Max Siegel, the president of global operations at DEI. Siegel stood only a few feet away as Eury Jr. addressed reporters, listening intently to every word.
Siegel doesn't normally come to the track until race day, but with everything going on at DEI he felt the need to be at Darlington a day earlier as a show of strength for the organization that is reeling for the loss.
He rescued Martin Truex Jr., who has a year left on his deal at DEI, from a group of reporters and answered all the questioned he didn't answer the day before.
He remained adamant that DEI will flourish without Earnhardt, saying plans to expand to four teams remain on the table.
One of the options being explored is the purchase of Robert Yates Racing. But Siegel said DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt is committed to remaining with Chevrolet and RYR co-owner Doug Yates said the company would not switch from Ford.
Yates also said the loss of Earnhardt could affect discussions.
"It definitely makes it look different, that's for sure," he said. "Looking at DEI without Dale Jr. is a different situation. It doesn't mean that it's any better or worse. It's just different."
Yates said the future of RYR should become clear in the next month or so, not ruling out a merger, partnership or both. He also put in his bid for Earnhardt., pointing out that he owns the Nos. 88 and 38.
"It's double-eights and Junior is eight," Yates said. "Three-eight works. … Could you imagine Dale Jr. driving a Mustang convertible down the highway singing 'Mustang Sally?'
"I'm not a marketing guy, but everybody wants Junior."
Earnhardt says he's in no hurry to make a decision, although most in the garage believe it'll happen sooner rather than later.
Dodge owner Ray Evernham, who already has the No. 9 [Kasey Kahne] and 10 [Scott Riggs] cars, would love to have the 8, 9, 10 combination. Reminded DEI owns the No. 8, he said, "If you had Junior behind the wheel you could probably pay the note on that."
"We haven't had any conversations," Evernham added. "Love to talk to him, but it would be my guess he already knows what he's going to do."
Until it becomes official, the circus that always surrounds Earnhardt will become larger than ever.
"It's just way too soon to even talk about it," Childress said. "Give Junior a little time and a little space, and he'll make the right decision. I want to see him do what's best for Junior, because I've known Junior since he was young."
David Newton covers Nextel Cup racing for ESPN.com.