MOORESVILLE, N.C. – When it comes to Dale Earnhardt Inc. marking Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 10-plus year tenure with the organization, it's hard not to come to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind conclusion.
As more than 200 reporters, broadcasters and photographers Wednesday filed through DEI on the third day of NASCAR's annual preseason media tour, what began as a surreal eeriness suddenly became stark reality.
Sure, we know the former driver of DEI's No. 8 is now at Hendrick Motorsports, ready to ply his trade in the No. 88 Chevrolet in hopes of earning the one thing he never did at DEI: a Cup championship.
But as reporters walked through the hallowed halls that the late Dale Earnhardt and widow Teresa built, there was virtually nothing that recalled the time Junior had spent there.
No photos, no banners and virtually nothing in the gift shop.
No indication of his two Busch Series championships, his 17 Cup wins or any other contribution he made to the organization.
It's almost as if Junior never existed at DEI.
"Yeah, it was real weird, we didn't see anything of you," one reporter later told Junior face-to-face.
While Teresa Earnhardt was a cordial hostess during Wednesday's two-hour soiree, stopping by every table to personally thank the media for visiting, it just wasn't the same DEI without Junior.
How do you forget someone who had been at the same place for so long and meant so much? Someone who kept the entire organization going – and prospering like it had never done before – after the tragic death of his father nearly seven years ago?
Some reporters quipped that maybe Junior would suddenly emerge from behind the black velvet curtain behind the stage.
Alas, there was no Junior. Nor were there any photos, cars or anything else of his, for that matter.
Where were they? In storage? On eBay? In the trash – or even burned?
It only added to the mystery when Max Siegel, DEI president of global operations, dodged a question about why there are no reminders of Junior's tenure with the company.
"On any given week, we look at that we have eight opportunities in three companies to make a positive impact on the Earnhardt legacy," Siegel said. "Dale Jr. at Hendrick, the progress at RCR (Richard Childress Racing) and the (joint engine development program) of the Earnhardt Childress Racing and our fine Cup drivers here.
"So, this company has been focused on its objectives to be a premier race team and a fine organization across the board. We have a great team of people, our drivers and management are moving positively that we'll achieve our objectives for 2008."
It's hard not to feel sorry for Junior that all of his time at DEI has been virtually erased. It's like he never even existed there.
Junior, who has not stepped foot at DEI since the end of last season, wasn't aware that all vestiges of him at his former place of employment had been wiped out.
"Really?" he said with genuine amazement, then paused several seconds as if to dwell in disbelief, as well as to consider what to say next.
"I don't know what else you'd expect," he said. "I don't think there's any animosity and I don't think they would do anything to insinuate 'We're totally free of that' or 'We don't want to recognize his time here.' I don't think there's any intention like that. I don't think Max or Teresa is like that."
But, "it doesn't matter to me," he quickly added. Like DEI has moved on without him, he's moved on to a new chapter of his life, as well.
Even though he lives a burnout away from DEI's headquarters and drives by it virtually every day, it has gone from the home of all his greatest racing accomplishments to date to just another nondescript building to him.
Now, Earnhardt's life is all about writing a new chapter at Hendrick. And if DEI has forgotten about him, he can just as easily forget about DEI, as well.
"I'm excited about it and happy to have the opportunity to be here, but it still is different, the (new car) number, everything," he said. "Every time you see everything, it just hits you really, really hard, the question of how did it get to this and how did we get here and what a frickin' journey it was.
"I thought that the way I feel about this, I've got to have some feeling of resentment or some kind of feeling about DEI or why I'm not there or not doing media day there today. But I don't. It doesn't cross my mind the least amount. I wonder why it doesn't, but it doesn't. I don't know why."
And if all evidence that he was once DEI's marquee driver are now gone, then he'll just have to create more new evidence at his new home.
"The unfortunate part of the whole process is that it had to happen," Earnhardt said. "I didn't want to be there anymore, regardless of where I was going to go. It's unfortunate. It ended OK. It could have been a whole lot uglier, but it's unfortunate that's part of the process to get to where I am now."