MOORESVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. will leave the company founded by his late father at the end of the year in a shake-up certain to ignite a bidding war for NASCAR's most popular driver.
He told Dale Earnhardt Inc. on Thursday that he had decided to make the switch to another team when his contract expires, intent on going to a more competitive team.
"At 32 years of age, the same age my father was when he made his final and most important career decision, it's time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships now," Earnhardt said at a news conference. "I believe I'd have my father's blessing."
Earnhardt had asked for 51 percent ownership of the team now run by his stepmother, Teresa. Negotiations on a contract extension began before the season and have been tense all along. Earnhardt's sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, had set a deadline to get the deal done by the end of the month.
"We never even got close," Earnhardt said from the JR Motorsports shop in Mooresville.
He stressed money is not the issue.
"It's not the guy who gives me the biggest paycheck. It's the person I feel like will allow me to accomplish what I want to in my career, on the race track, in this shop itself," he said. "There's some things you can't get with money, peace of mind and satisfaction in what you do everyday. ... I'm seeking to have that peace of mind and that comfort to be able to really be an asset to somebody. I want to go somewhere and really make things happen for somebody."
Sitting next to his sister and wearing a T-shirt and an open collared shirt, Earnhardt said he leaves DEI with mixed emotions.
"I'm sad that I have to leave some employees that I got close to, leave some relationships," he said. "We're going to finish this year out, and I told my guys we're going to run hard. I don't want any excuses for us not giving our best effort. I plan on giving everything I've got like I always do, and hopefully that's what I'll get in return."
In a statement, Teresa Earnhardt said DEI will thrive without Junior.
"While we are very disappointed that Dale Jr. has chosen to leave the family business, we remain excited about our company's future," she said. "Dale and I built this company to be a championship contender, and those principles still apply. Dale Earnhardt Inc. will win. ... This company has a great legacy and a bright future, built on loyalty, integrity and commitment."
Earnhardt said Teresa Earnhardt wasn't surprised when he told her of his decision.
"I think now she's looking around the corner to do what she needs to do to prepare her company and everything there for 2008," he said.
Earnhardt, too, must decide what's best for his future. He said he would like to continue to drive Chevrolets, which will limit his options. It's also likely his primary sponsor, Budweiser, will move with him to the new team.
"I believe our first choice would be to drive for another top, competitive team," Elledge said. "Our last choice would be to form our own Cup team. If that was necessary, that would be what we would do."
"We're going to listen to everybody," Earnhardt added.
One possible suitor is Richard Childress Racing, always considered the most logical place for Junior to go. Childress and Dale Earnhardt Sr. were extremely close, and Junior has maintained a relationship with the car owner.
That makes sense to Darrell Waltrip, one of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s friendly rivals who traveled from Nashville at Earnhardt's request to join him for Thursday's announcement.
"I've always thought RCR just because of the Childress-Earnhardt relationship," Waltrip said. "I personally have always thought the racing world would be right if Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the black No. 3 car."
RCR can add him as the fourth and final team NASCAR permits each owner. It would team him with Kevin Harvick, who replaced the elder Earnhardt following his 2001 death, and has openly invited Junior to join the organization.
"I've got to do a little soul searching on how I feel driving the No. 3 car," Earnhardt said.
It's also possible that RCR would lease JR Motorsports its engines should Earnhardt field his own team.
So could Hendrick Motorsports.
One of three Chevrolet teams better than DEI, Hendrick Motorsports has no room in its stable for Earnhardt.
Hendrick, winner of seven of the past eight Cup races, is already maxed out with four teams but could assist Earnhardt by leasing him engines. Hendrick already leases motors to Ginn Racing and Haas-CNC Racing, and Earnhardt recently got to feel their horsepower when he jumped into Kyle Busch's car during a race last month.
The wildcard could be Joe Gibbs Racing, another powerful three-car Chevy team that would pair him with buddies Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin. Earnhardt and Stewart have worked wonderfully together on restrictor plate tracks, and Earnhardt befriended Hamlin early in his career.
Gibbs is coach of the Washington Redskins, and Earnhardt is die-hard fan. He wore a Redskins cap backward Monday during a test session at Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he expressed frustration over the NASCAR-mandated Car of Tomorrow and admitted DEI can't keep up with Hendrick's COT program.
"There are a lot of logical scenarios that people are going to put together," Earnhardt said. "We've seen quite a few scenarios over the last couple of days that were kind of amusing. Some right, some not so right."
Earnhardt and Elledge have been adamant their only goal is to help Junior win Cup championships, something he's been unable to do at DEI. He hasn't been a legitimate title contender since 2004. In 2005, he had a horrendous season when Teresa Earnhardt split up his crew, and he failed to make the Chase for the championship.
He rebounded last year by making the Chase, but was never a threat for the title.
"I am a little sad, but I am trying to remind myself to be excited about what's ahead," Earnhardt said.