DARLINGTON, S.C. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. went back to work Friday, climbing into his race car at Darlington Raceway to escape the frenzy surrounding his free-agent status.
As his late father's boss threw his name into the race to sign NASCAR's most popular driver, Junior made it clear he needs a little time to figure out his future. He said Thursday he'll leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the season.
"I would like to take a week or two to clear my mind a little bit, drink some beers and have some fun," he said after practice. "I have felt about as un-normal as I possibly could the past few days. Lost a lot of sleep. So I want to relax and just clear my head and get in a good football stance to go after this new deal that we're seeking."
Earnhardt wants a championship-caliber team, something he doesn't think he can have at DEI as long as his stepmother is running the show. He demanded 51 percent ownership during contentious contract negotiations, but Teresa Earnhardt wouldn't turn over control.
So he's leaving the family business, and there will be no shortage of suitors to sign him.
Richard Childress, who fielded cars for six of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s seven championships, indicated he'll make a run at adding Junior to his three-car team as soon as the time is right.
"We will sit and talk, I'm sure," Childress said. "I'm hoping he's considering us. But I think right now, we'll just give him some time and space to do his own due diligence on the race teams he's looking at."
Asked if he'd consider bringing back the elder Earnhardt's famed No. 3 for the son to drive, Childress stalled.
"It's just way too soon to even talk about it," he said. "I want to see him do what's best for Junior, because I've known Junior since he was young. I'm still friends with Teresa and the whole family. We'll just see how it all pans out."
Junior practically can pick where he wants to go, but has indicated he'd like to stay behind the wheel of a Chevrolet. That would limit his list of options to three teams - RCR, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing - and prevent many car owners from even calling.
"We're not in a situation that we're in line to offer him a job," said team owner Roger Penske. "We'd like to talk to him. It seemed from his comments he wants to be with Chevrolet. We have a contract with Dodge."
Hendrick doesn't have an opening in its four-car team, the maximum allowed under NASCAR rules. Childress and Gibbs have three cars apiece, with room for one more.
Junior also could go to Ginn Racing, a midlevel team that's been rejuvenated under new ownership and has been surprisingly competitive this season. Ginn leases its motors from Hendrick.
"He can go anywhere he wants to go," said four-time champion Jeff Gordon, a Hendrick driver. "This is not an easy decision for him. He struggled with it in many ways, and he wants to show his loyalty, and his loyalty is to his fans, and that has a lot to do with Chevrolet.
"I guess there are some areas where he's going to draw the line. It does sound like he wants to be with a Chevy team. That's a good thing right now, because to me the top three teams in this series are Chevy teams."
Junior, for his part, seemed immune to it all Friday. As the garage buzzed about his news, he and his DEI team did their best to get on with their final year together.
It wasn't easy, though, as thick crowds gathered around his garage stall and team hauler to watch his every move.
"It's sort of hard to get to the car - I'm parked too close to the 8," RCR driver Clint Bowyer joked. "Man, it would be hard to focus on what you are doing with all the hoopla around him."
Despite the chaos, Junior was able to find some peace inside his red No. 8 Chevrolet.
"I am glad to be back in a race car today, absolutely. That's where I hide from a lot of things," he said. "I love race car driving and that's all I want to do. After the last couple of days, this is the best medicine."
A day after he expressed zero joy in announcing his defection from DEI, Junior expressed concern about a possible backlash from fans that might materialize as he and his mother take a special Mother's Day lap after tonight's driver introductions.
Although perhaps the most difficult decision of his career is behind him, Junior still has stress.
"There is no real feeling of relief, and I didn't expect to be like ‘Wow, big weight lifted off my shoulders,'" he said. "Making decisions and moving forward, that is good. But I am 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 of me.
"But I still haven't gotten to where I am sleeping good yet."
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