In his hands

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never won a Cup Championship. In fact, he has won just two races since October 2004 and none in over a year.

He might be rich, he might be famous, he might be more beloved than all the other current NASCAR drivers – combined – but sitting today at age 32, smack in the middle of his prime as a driver, he is also floundering on the track, mired in an extended slump.

So while you can never discount money as a reason he bailed Thursday on his dad's old company, Dale Earnhardt Inc., declaring himself a free agent for 2008 and sticking it to his stepmother Teresa, you could see in Junior's eyes that there was more at stake here.

Earnhardt Jr. needs to start winning again. Winning soon and winning big. His frenzied fan base might not be saying it (although his critics are) but Junior knows it and is embarrassed by it.

"Hopefully I can accomplish the things I want to accomplish and put on the show I think I can put on," Earnhardt said at his North Carolina press conference. "I feel over the last year or two I've short-changed my fans. They've been very loyal standing by me when we've been incapable of putting up results that we feel capable of.

"I'm hoping to win some races, win some championships to give those guys what they spend all their money for."

Junior wouldn't get into all the details of how negotiations broke bad with DEI, nor would he take any direct swipes at Teresa. He tried to take the high road.

But outside of the money, it was evident. His stepmother's meddling the past couple years has been a disaster. He hasn't been pleased with the cars DEI has been giving him lately and can't envision that changing. Meanwhile, he's watched other outfits, most notably Hendrick Motorsports, winners of seven of the season's 10 races, surge far ahead and figure out the Car of Tomorrow today.

"There's not a lot of parity right now," Junior said.

So now comes stage two for Junior. He's reached rock star fame, has made plenty of cash, learned to drive and had some success – a third-place points finish in 2003, a fifth in 2004 and 17 career victories, including the Daytona 500 in 2004.

But if he is going to be anything more than his daddy's son, he needs to do better than the last two-plus seasons. And with the ability to either form his own team or choose to join whatever one he wants – everyone will inquire – this is all on him now.

DEI's failures, his stepmother's mistakes, these no longer will be his problems.

As the most bankable personality, he should wind up in the most advantageous spot on the circuit. And if he is any kind of driver, he will deliver from there.

"It's time to compete on a consistent basis and compete for championships," he said. "[DEI and I] both want to get to the same place but we had different visions of how to get there."

It was just last week in Richmond he was marveling at Hendrick Motorsports' commitment to testing, speaking in a wistful tone about the place. In hindsight, you can see this decision had been made, that he already had given up on DEI.

Yes, money is a factor. Junior trotted out some line of reasoning about "being able to take care of my family." He even brought mom into it, mentioning he wants to allow her to maintain "her lifestyle." Please. The guy already has tens of millions of dollars, so unless his mother Brenda's lifestyle is something in line with the Crown Prince of Dubai's, Junior can cover it.

There is nothing wrong with Little E wanting more of the money he makes – mostly from merchandise sales and corporate sponsors. Teresa Earnhardt and DEI will forever regret not handing over whatever he wanted. He would have been worth every million.

But as he pointed out, every owner is going to be able to pay him about the same – a lot – and the apparel sales from whatever his new number and color will be should set NASCAR records. So the money is going to be there.

Once Teresa wouldn't hand over control of DEI – competitively as much as financially – it was over.

Earnhardt looked sheepish talking about his recent performances, and the last thing he wants to do is go down as just a name, just another driver who got a disproportionate amount of fame and fanfare because of who his daddy was, not what he himself did.

This is the weight of history here. This is the downside to all the doors his famous name opened. You can't be Dale Earnhardt Jr. and just be good, just be another decent driver. His career thus far doesn't cut it.

You need to be great. You need to be a champion.

He knows that. He wants that. This is still Senior's son. This is still an outrageously competitive person.

On Thursday Dale Earnhardt Jr. boldly made his break. He stepped out of his father's shadow, got away from his stepmother's soap opera, left his comfort zone, turned his back on a wallowing, underperforming team and prepared to seize his future.

No more excuses. No more complaints.

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