Turmoil brewing between Junior and stepmom


Published: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Sticking an outsider nose into family business can be risky, improper and insensitive. But this invasion is different. It deals with the high-horsepower, high-magnetism, high-stakes life of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the popular accelerator-stomping son of one of stock car history's most admired drivers.

So I'm poking.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. was a controversial, extraordinarily aggressive, beloved NASCAR champion. Rebellious hero to a stock-car multitude. On a black Sunday almost six years ago, his No. 3 Chevy crashed into a wall on the Daytona 500's final lap.

Junior's daddy died.

At 32, the gifted kid has become a wow of a successor. Voted four times as the sport's most popular driver, Junior is NASCAR's hottest 21st century name. Stock car racing has vroom-vroomed to heavenly popularity, unfathomable riches and bountiful TV ratings. No star is brighter than No. 8, outshining Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and all other Sunday speeders.

But, in 2006, Junior had a clunker of a season. His red Chevrolet won just once in 36 races as Jimmie Johnson blurred to a Nextel Cup championship. An Earnhardt family cauldron was boiling, seeping rancor that was evident to outsiders. Turmoil festered between Junior and stepmother Teresa, who inherited Dale Earnhardt Enterprises (DEI).

As '07 nears a Daytona cranking. Gordon assesses that Junior will leave DEI. "I think it's gone too far," said the driver of the 24 car (that's NASCAR talk). "If he's smart, Dale Jr. will do what is best for him."

This is NASCAR, so such a splitting would be far different than Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones parting with pro football coach Bill Parcells. It cuts deeper. It's family. Kevin Harvick, a notable NASCAR motormouth, babbled that Teresa is "a deadbeat owner."

Junior, miffed at Harvick's stab, said his stopmom "ain't had no bed of roses." Dealing with her husband's death, then a flurry of controversies involving newspaper efforts to print autopsy photographs.

But the Earnhardts aren't cozy.

"The relationship we had when I moved in with Teresa and Dad (at age 6) is the same as now," Junior told reporters. "Hasn't gotten worse lately. The way I felt about her then (in the early '80s) is the way I feel about her now."

We must guess what that means.

Big question — will they split?

Junior is a personality giant. A money-making machine. You'd think he would be an Alex Rodriguez on the free-agent market. Even if NASCAR is far different than Major League Baseball. What might a Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick or other high-end car owner spend to snag No. 8?

Childress owned Dale Sr.'s cars. Their friendship was long and solid. He surely craves linking with Junior. Earnhardt could also form his own NASCAR team. How many manufacturers would flood his shop, eager to provide hardware, services and mega money? Reps of Budweiser, No. 8's biggest corporate backer, say privately that they plan to ride with Junior, at DEI or elsewhere.

What would Teresa Earnhardt's corporation be without the stepson? DEI has underachieved lately with the No. 8 Chevy as its prime weapon. Who among us outsiders knows how sweet DEI might run in 2007? What would the chances be for Dale Sr.'s widow to flourish in business without his son?

Junior works at being respectful but realistic toward Teresa. He was 3 when Dale Sr. and his mother divorced. Junior could unload on her and be all but assured of public and media backing. He has too much class.

I know little about Teresa, who chooses to slide well beneath the NASCAR radar. But the Junior that America sees is hugely likeable; a quintessential modern good ole boy with whopper commercial appeal.

In a rare telephone interview, Teresa told USA Today, "We're trying to move forward, growing and expanding the company any way we can." Six weeks ago, she told the Wall Street Journal, "The ball is in his (Junior's) court to decide whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or a public personality."

Say what, Stepmama?

Being a marquee NASCAR driver means, for most of the top guys, also functioning as a rock-star kind of celebrity. Baseball, football, basketball, hockey, tennis and golf must envy NASCAR's bond between fans and athletes. Junior should be expected to play dual roles, contending for Nextel Cup championships as well as being a drawling, grinning Brad Pitt of pit row.

Do a Google of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and sample his "store," all the No. 8 goodies for sale from shirts to caps to flags to portraits to miniature No. 8 automobiles. Junior is an industry. Millions want a piece of him. If his star power is misunderstood by Teresa Earnhardt, it would mean DEI is headed for a major corporate wreck.

Daytona should be interesting.

Contact columnist Hubert Mizell at mizell3@cox.net

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