Dale Jr., DEI engaged in high-stakes game of poker

Dave Ongie • Feb 13, 2007 at 6:45 AM

The gentlemen of the Nextel Cup circuit may be a few days away from starting their engines in the Daytona 500, but the action has been fast and furious ever since they took the checkered flag in Homestead.

We really need to think of a new name for the two months between Homestead and Daytona, because it is anything but an offseason.

After testing, sponsor commitments and public appearances, the drivers on the Nextel Cup circuit probably feel like they need a vacation from their vacation by the time they hunker down in Daytona for Speedweeks.

But despite the whirlwind schedules these guys keep during their "downtime," there was plenty going on to add a little extra sizzle to the most anticipated season in recent memory.

The biggest story from the offseason is obviously the winter chill that developed between Dale Jr. and his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt.

What figured to be a smooth negotiation as Junior entered his final year under contract with DEI took quite a turn when Teresa questioned her stepson's commitment to becoming a better driver in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

When it came time for Junior to sit down with the brain trust at DEI, the race team his father built, he strolled in and asked for nothing less than majority ownership.

Now, I'm not usually one to give career advice, but Junior may want to consider taking a seat at this year's World Series of Poker, because the man knows a bluff when he sees one and apparently has the guts to call it.

At the moment, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is DEI. He's the most popular driver on the circuit and clearly the most talented driver in the organization.

If his stepmother had kept her mouth shut, the deal would probably have been done already. Now if Teresa wants to keep control of DEI, she'll most likely have to do so without her stepson's sponsorship dollars and his driving ability.

Again, I'm not a career consultant, but if I were Teresa, I'd open my checkbook and give the kid whatever he wants, ownership included.

It may not do much for her pride, but it beats trying to win with Paul Menard and Martin Truex Jr. while Junior takes his sponsorship clout to another ride - like a certain black Chevy at Richard Childress Racing, perhaps?

While Junior was busy throwing around the weight of his bargaining power, Jack Roush was gearing up for war.

The head honcho of Roush Racing made it very clear that his goal was to bury Toyota, which is debuting three teams onto the Cup circuit this year.

Never mind the fact that many of Ford's automobiles are now manufactured in other countries while countless American workers assemble Toyotas here in the United States, Roush said his goal is to bury the Japanese auto giant in his red, white and blue dust.

Roush's rant during the media tour in Charlotte played like an episode of "24," with Roush in the role of Jack Bauer, promising to do whatever it takes to protect America's favorite motorsport from being hijacked by a foreign automaker with deep pockets.

Say what you will about the outspoken owner, at least he's taking a proactive role when it comes to Toyota. While many other team owners have spent the offseason throwing their hands in the air and saying Toyota has too much money, Roush has rolled up his sleeves and prepared his fleet of Ford Fusions to hit Toyota where it is most vulnerable right now - on the track.

Roush hounded Ford to kick in a huge amount of money to improve R&D after a disappointing 2006 season and brokered a deal to bring John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, on board as a part owner.

Time will tell who is the ultimate winner in Roush's war with Toyota, but both sides have suffered casualties right out of the gate.

Michael Waltrip's Toyota was impounded by NASCAR prior to Sunday's qualifying for a rule violation while Matt Kenseth's qualifying time was thrown out after his Ford Fusion failed a post-qualifying inspection.

While the green flag won't fall at "The Great American Race" for five more days, the stage is set for a heck of a season. Now if we can just keep Jimmie Johnson away from the golf carts…

Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. E-mail him at dongie@timesnews.net.

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