DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 2007 NASCAR season unofficially kicked off with preseason testing here on Monday, and it didn't take long for one driver to stir things up.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted Monday that his relationship with stepmother and team owner Teresa Earnhardt "ain't a bed of roses."
And with negotiations over a new long-term contract being oftentimes contentious and moving at a snail-like pace, the relationship between the Earnhardts may be becoming more like "The War of the Roses."
Three weeks ago, Teresa Earnhardt publicly questioned Junior's desire and motivation in a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. At the time, her stepson held his tongue.
But during Monday's test session at Daytona, Earnhardt the driver fired a huge salvo back at Earnhardt the team owner, even subtly threatening that he might jump ship and potentially take prized big-bucks sponsor Budweiser with him.
"Absolutely, my relationship with the car owner is definitely going to factor into my decision to drive there," Junior said. "I haven't talked to Teresa about what she said in the paper. I figured if anything needed to be said, she'd call me up and say it. But you know, my and her relationship definitely factor into my decision to drive there."
On the surface, Earnhardt's comments could be construed as posturing to speed up the pace of contract negotiations, as well as an attempt to force Teresa into giving him a piece of the ownership of Dale Earnhardt Inc. – which may be the biggest stumbling block in the negotiations.
But for a guy who for years has refused to comment at length about the relationship he has with his father's widow, his words Monday were quite enlightening.
"I don't want to really get too personal, but Teresa is my stepmother, and I have a mother at home that I have a very good relationship with," Junior said. "Mine and Teresa's relationship has always been very black and white, very strict and in your face. It is what it is."
And what it is would appear to be not very pretty, judging from the sarcasm seemingly dripping from Junior's words.
"The relationship that we have today is the same relationship we had when I was six years old when I moved into that house with Dad and her," Junior said. "It's always been the same. It hasn't gotten worse over the last couple years or last couple months. It's always been the same, the way I felt about her then is the way I feel about her now."
Since the death of her husband on the final lap of the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500, Teresa Earnhardt has become one of the most reclusive owners in Nextel Cup, prompting some critics to call her the Howard Hughes of NASCAR. She attends few races in person and rarely gives media interviews.
But there's no denying that she's one of the most powerful women in the sport.
Meanwhile, Junior is well aware that DEI's contracts with him and Budweiser both expire at the end of the upcoming 2007 season. Trying to pry Budweiser away could be a formidable task, and Junior may have to resign himself to staying with DEI if he wants to continue driving his world-famous ride.
"I like driving the red Bud car with the No. 8 on it," Junior said. "To drive that car, I basically have to drive at DEI."
Still, Junior left himself an out, adding, "To get this new deal done is going to be very difficult."
At times during Monday's media session, Junior seemingly channeled the spirit of his father. Instead of being the laidback, good ol' boy that the NASCAR world has come to love, Junior showed some of the spit and vinegar that his oftentimes cantankerous old man was known for.
"What's important to me is give me a good race car, don't give me any mess other than that," he proclaimed. "Just give me a good race car, make it run fast, give me guys I enjoy working with and going to the race track [with].
"I'll do whatever you need me to do with the sponsors and everything else, just don't make everything a hassle and don't make everything a pain and you'll have my dedication and everything else you need as far as my being a driver goes."
Junior wasn't afraid to say what was on his mind, just like his old man. Perhaps his theme for the upcoming season will be No More Mr. Nice Guy, and maybe this seemingly new attitude is the one ingredient he has been missing in his quest to become a Nextel Cup champion.
"I don't want to come here and [not] compete well and run well," said Junior, who did return to the Chase in 2006 after a one-year absence. "I don't want to just get by. I want the best – the best cars, the best people."
In other words, he wants from DEI what the Jimmie Johnsons, Tony Stewarts and Matt Kenseths get from teams like Hendrick, Gibbs and Roush – and Richard Childress Racing, where his father drove and where the rumor mill often has Junior eventually landing.
"We see other companies and teams doing what it takes and making the right moves, and I just want to be at the same situation as I see other drivers in," Junior said. "I know I'm a good enough race car driver and I deserve it. I'm just trying to get it all settled and make it right."
He took a big step toward that on Monday. Now, if only Teresa was listening … or even cared.