Dale Earnhardt Jr. caused a stir last week when he announced he was leaving the company his father, seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt, founded in 1980. He talked about the reaction from his fans and his race team last week at the Darlington Raceway. Here are excerpts of that interview:
Question: Were you surprised by the level of attention your announcement has generated?
Earnhardt Jr.: Yeah, I am. It's a little bit overwhelming, and you know I'm just trying to find the positives in everything. One thing that I wanted to say was that we haven't begun legitimately serious discussions about who we're going to work with and who we're thinking about working with. It's unfair for the other teams like RCR and those guys to have to have that going on. 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 in the paper about speculations. Years ago, speculation wouldn't make it to air, and it's unfortunate these days that sometimes it does because what it does is number one, it gives the fans false information, and number two, it just rubs those guys. Those guys (at RCR) have got a lot to concentrate on and they're trying to do a job and the last thing I'd want to do as a friend and out of respect to Richard and his team and his guys is to come in between anything they're trying to accomplish this year.
Question: Do you want to find a ride for 2008 sooner or later?
Earnhardt Jr.: I'll get it done when I'm ready to get it done. I'm in no hurry. No pressure from the media, or any direction, for that matter, is going to persuade me to hurry anything or rush anything. Like I said, this is a real, real important decision for me personally that I have to make sure I'm making correctly.
Question: What's been the reaction of other drivers?
Earnhardt Jr.: There was a good camaraderie throughout the garage and I know that those guys I can lean on for advice or whatever. I know a lot of them have been in the same situation. I have gotten a lot of great reaction from my fans and I want to thank them for being really, really supportive. That means a lot to me. You have a lot of unknowns going into making a decision like that of who's going to support you and who's going to be by your side and I was really, really surprised by the positive reaction I've gotten from my fans so far. I was surprised by the attendance of grandmother Martha and my dad's sister, Kathy, at my press conference. That made me feel really good. Everybody's been great. Even (DEI president) Max Siegel blew me away with his conduct and how he's been positive, although that's not a big surprise. Max has always told me he's a genuine guy, and I try to believe people when they say that, but it's a rough sport. But he's been really supportive and he wants to allow me to do this right and I appreciate that. My guys on my team are excited about the rest of the season and they're behind me and that's all good stuff.
Question: Is free agency good or bad for racing?
Earnhardt Jr.: I can't answer that. NASCAR doesn't like all the publicity it gets, but I didn't really have that in my concerns. If it was going to be detrimental for NASCAR, I would have definitely been concerned about my decision. But my decision wasn't based on that and I'm not sure exactly where NASCAR is and how they feel. They're supporting me as well as DEI. They want to see DEI succeed like we all do and they're going to continue to support DEI and what it does throughout the sport and they'll do that for the drivers as well.
Question: Do you feel weird knowing your days are numbered at DEI?
Earnhardt Jr.: Not necessarily. It's not something new in the sport and you've seen drivers move from team to team before and this has happened before but I was happy to hear my guys say they support me into the rest of the season. They're glad to hear that we're going to race hard and try to have some fun and enjoy what we do. We all race for a living because we love it, and we're going to try to continue to keep that attitude at the racetrack and stay positive. That's important to me. I hope that's the way it continues to stay.
Question: What's the toughest part of finding a new team?
Earnhardt Jr.: There's a lot of things that are difficult about it. ... It's going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort to really decipher and make the correct decision. There'll be a lot of things I'm sure that will be tough to decide on, but I know what I'm looking for and I think I'll be able to find that. Mentally and emotionally it's just tough, you know, because I've never been in this situation before and people say some bad things and people say some great things, people were supportive and people were angry. It's just coming from all angles and that's an interesting part about it. It's a little bit tough, but I think that in the end, once it's all said and done, everybody will have an understanding of what went on and how we got to where we are today and why we will be where we are in the future. We just got through really the first part of this deal, and we'll just sit down and answer the phone and just see. I'm excited about what my opportunities, possibilities may be. You daydream about what a good situation is to you personally and, hopefully, I can find that.
Question: Do you feel relieved to make your decision on DEI?
Earnhardt Jr.: Not yet, there really isn't a real feeling of relief. I didn't expect to be like, 'Wow, (that's) a big weight lifted off my shoulders.' I'm glad that we're making decisions and moving forward. That is good but I'm having to work and talk with people now on a daily basis that are unsure about their future and unsure about our future together and that's difficult and emotional. I was glad to see my team today and they were supportive in me. I didn't get to talk to those guys yesterday. They were on the road when I went to DEI. They were really supportive of me and they all sat me down me and said 'Look man, we're behind you. We're going to have fun this year.' I'm really excited that they're having that attitude and I'm going to try as hard as I can to keep them around. I owe it to them. They've done a lot for me. So that was really good this morning. Max has been pleasant and he's still interested in doing some projects away from the competition side which I think is a good idea. So those things were good, but I still haven't gotten to where I'm sleeping good yet.
Question: Fans want to see you at Richard Childress Racing. How does that influence your decision?
Earnhardt Jr.: It's nice to know what the fans think but I'm going to try to make the best decision I can make. Influence is never a good word, most of the time. I'm going to just try to make the best decision I can make and hopefully everybody is happy with it and hopefully everybody is excited about it.
Question: Do you think fans are upset with your decision?
Earnhardt Jr.: You know me, I can take it.
-- compiled by Don Coble