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An offer Earnhardt Jr. can refuse?

JENNA FRYER • Apr 23, 2007 at 11:12 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Taking control of DEI, his late father's company, might come at too high a price for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Last week, ESPN reported DEI offered Dale Earnhardt Jr. 51 percent ownership, which NASCAR's most popular driver quickly denied. That's not to say there weren't informal discussions, rather it could be Junior simply stopped listening once he heard the asking price.

Several people familiar with the contract negotiations told The Associated Press that DEI has not made a formal offer and that any discussions centered around the 51 percent ownership share came with a steep asking price - $55 million or more - that the Earnhardt Jr. camp didn't take seriously.

That number would be in line with the going rate for a stake in a NASCAR team. Boston Red Sox owner John Henry is believed to have spent about $60 million in February for a minority stake in Roush Fenway Racing.

Those familiar with the negotiations requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak.

When reached Monday, Junior's sister Kelley Earnhardt Elledge declined comment, citing the reporting of inaccurate information over the weekend in her desire to refrain from commenting until a formal announcement.

Junior has been steadfast in his demand for majority ownership throughout the three-month negotiations. But who knows if he can even afford to meet the asking price?

And should he even be expected to pay for a stake in the team?

He and Elledge have said they believe Dale Earnhardt started DEI as something to leave behind for his four children.

"The idea is that the company would be left to the children, and we want to make sure that there is a formidable business left there we can take on for our generation and then our children and then on and on," Elledge said earlier this month. "It's very important to us."

If Dale Earnhardt were still alive, would he have sold shares to his son or simply handed over control when Junior was ready to run an empire?

Stepmother Teresa Earnhardt might know the answer, but she's not saying. Instead, she has appointed Max Siegel, president of global operations for DEI, to speak on her behalf.

Silent through most of the negotiations, Siegel has said he didn't want to publicize the ongoing contract talks. He broke that rule last Thursday, telling ESPN that DEI has "worked hard to address everything" that Junior sought, without discussing specific percentages.

Since the report came out, Siegel has gone silent again. Neither Siegel nor other DEI representatives responded to multiple interview requests from the AP.

There has been talk that to get a majority ownership stake Junior would have to agree to a DEI board of directors that would make all major decisions, according to those familiar with the negotiations.

But it makes little sense for Junior to accept that. Being forced to run decisions through a board - which likely would include Teresa Earnhardt - circumvents what he's trying to accomplish.

He doesn't want control to get rich. He wants it to win championships. And his desire to run the company is what he and Elledge believe it will take to get DEI to NASCAR's upper echelon. Although the team is competitive, it has yet to consistently challenge for a Nextel Cup title, and Earnhardt hasn't been a legitimate championship contender since 2004.

Elledge recently issued a 45-day deadline to settle the contract issue, putting pressure on DEI to get moving. But ESPN's report of a majority ownership stake offer caught Elledge and Junior off guard - something Junior was less than pleased about.

That might backfire on DEI.

With only six weeks left in Elledge's timeframe to come to a formal agreement, it seems the two sides have never been farther apart.

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