- Angelique S. Chengelis, NASCAR
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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Now that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has sealed his future for the next five years with Hendrick Motorsports beginning next season, there are other issues on the table.
For instance, will he be able to take the No. 8 with him from Dale Earnnhardt Inc.? Earnhardt and the No. 8 have been linked since he entered the Nextel Cup series in 1999. It is an issue that he threw out during his news conference last Wednesday when he announced his future employment.
Earnhardt said Friday after qualifying at Michigan International Speedway that there has not yet been any communication with DEI about obtaining the No. 8.
"Obviously, we'll see if there's any interest from [team owner] Teresa [Earnhardt] and [DEI president of global operations] Max [Siegel] to do that, but they've probably got to answer a couple more questions of their own to be able to have a good idea how they feel about that," Earnhardt said. "Whether they feel like they have any interest in talking about it, I'm sure that's something Rick [Hendrick] and my sister [Kelley Earnhardt Elledge] would be interested in doing."
Siegel said Friday that he would be willing to discuss a transfer of the number.
"We're open to talk about anything," Siegel said. "But in order to consider it, there has to be some formal proposal. No one has contacted me. Other than knowing his desire to have the number, no one has approached me with a formal proposal. I'm not going to talk about it until I get one."
Clearly, Earnhardt understands part of his marketing has been linked to that specific car number.
"Regardless if we do or we don't, it would be great to keep the eight," he said. "I'm sure my fans would appreciate that. You kind of have to keep the mindset that you might have to change numbers, so you start looking at other numbers and other things that might be interesting to you. There are a lot of numbers out there that I could use or would use or would like to use. It would be kind of cool.
"[There's] not just one. You've got to look at everything. I'd like to design the cars myself and get into how the cars look themselves, so I'd like to be a big part of not only the decision of what number we are but how the number itself and how the car itself looks with regards to how the sponsor feels about that. They might not like my ideas, so we'll have to see."
If there was any concern about how the Earnhardt faithful would respond to him since his decision to move to Hendrick was made public on Wednesday, it seemed those concerns were unfounded. As he moved through the garage area at Michigan following his qualifying run, he stopped before an enormous group of fans to sign photo cards, replica cars, posters, anything and everything handed to him, as they snapped pictures of him.
"The fans that have pulled for me have been very supportive," Earnhardt said. "Even fans who have no interest in pulling for me have been supportive. You're going to have positives and negatives in everything, but I've been really surprised by how supportive my fans have been. You kind of thought that was up in the air. You didn't really know what their reaction was going to be, but they've always been supportive in the past, and certainly this is a little bit bigger deal than anything else I've ever done, and they continue to be supportive. It's really surprising, really surprising."
Earnhardt said he has had conversations with the Hendrick drivers with whom he will be teaming next year -- Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears -- but has not had a chance to mingle with Hendrick Motorsports employees.
He said the feedback he has received from his colleagues has been generally positive. Most, he said, have been congratulating him.
"There is still a long time before we are able to work together, but I am excited about the opportunity," Johnson said. "I think it is great for Hendrick Motorsports and great for myself. Right now, I know it is probably a big burden off of Mr. Hendrick's chest, off of Junior's chest, and we will just see how the next few months unfold."
Kevin Harvick, who drives for Richard Childress Racing, one of the teams that had been in the running for Earnhardt's services, went to the other extreme.
"My honest opinion? I could care less," Harvick said, laughing. "I really don't care."
Earnhardt looked a bit drained but, at the same time, relieved after qualifying on Friday. He will start 23rd in Sunday's race.
He said his two news conferences, the one in early May to announce his departure from DEI, the company founded by his late father and stepmother, Teresa, and the most recent to reveal his future plans, have emotionally drained him.
"We've been pretty busy," said Earnhardt, who added he has not had any recent discussions with his stepmother, with whom he has a strained relationship. "I've been trying to get a couple hours off here and there where I can sit at home and take a breath. I was so tired.
"Both of them press conferences, I couldn't believe how exhausted I was afterwards. There's so much going on in your head. You get so mentally exhausted. But after both of them, I passed out for four or five hours on the couch."
Getting to the two-mile Michigan oval and running laps was about as cathartic as it gets these days for Earnhardt.
"Any time you want to relieve some stress, you climb in a race car," he said. "I've been quite stressed out over the last couple months, and getting in the car is the best medicine."
Angelique S. Chengelis is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage.
6dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz