Junior enjoying his free agency period

Published 2:32 am Saturday, May 19, 2007

By By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
CONCORD — The car owners are calling and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ready to listen.
In fact, NASCAR’s most popular driver is enjoying the courtship part of free agency.
Earnhardt said Friday he’s had preliminary talks with potential employers and his sister has been prioritizing all of his options. He announced last week that he was leaving DEI, his late father’s company, at the end of the season.
Earnhardt wouldn’t reveal whom he has spoken to so far, and said early discussions had yet to produce a clear favorite. But he’s been surprised at how nice the owners have been.
Clean-shaven after sporting a full beard all of last week, Earnhardt on Friday seemed to have relaxed after taking some time off following his announcement last week.
He said he’s leaving DEI because he doesn’t think he can win a championship there as long as his stepmother, Teresa, is running the organization. Contract talks were contentious, with Junior demanding 51 percent ownership before he walked away from the table for good.
Earnhardt said Friday that he has not spoken with his stepmother since informing her of his decision.
Although he had hoped to take the first part of the week to decompress, Earnhardt said he worked a little bit while making progress on his job search.
His sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, also has spoken to several teams and has scheduled meetings with others as she negotiates her brother through the biggest free agency period in NASCAR history.
Elledge, who is Junior’s business manager, said the focus is currently on top Chevrolet teams, followed by everyone else. Elledge said that fielding his own Nextel Cup team out of JR Motorsports, the team Earnhardt owns, is ‘‘a last resort.’’
Three of the top four Chevrolet teams — RCR, Joe Gibbs Racing and Ginn Racing — have indicated a desire to speak to Earnhardt. Only Hendrick Motorsports, winner of eight of the past nine races this season, has been silent on the issue.
Richard Childress, who fielded cars for six of the elder Earnhardt’s seven championships, has indicated he will talk to Junior but said Friday he had yet to speak the driver or Elledge.
And Bobby Ginn, who took over a midlevel team last summer, said he plans to aggressively pursue the driver.
J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, said last week that he’d like to talk to Earnhardt but indicated it might not be a good fit. JGR promotes a family values image, and Gibbs said the organization would have a hard time accepting Budweiser, Earnhardt’s longtime sponsor.
Dodge owners Ray Evernham, Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske all have said they’d like an opportunity to sign Earnhardt, but acknowledge they are long shots because of Junior’s loyalty to Chevrolet. Even so, they all are in line waiting to see if Elledge gets that far down the list.
As he heads into Saturday night’s All-Star race, Earnhardt wants to focus on the $1 million event.
But his DEI team is under scrutiny after NASCAR caught them with an illegal modification to the Car of Tomorrow last week at Darlington Raceway.
Earnhardt was docked 100 points, and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races. He’s appealing the severity of the fine, and will be allowed to work the All-Star race.