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New team, plenty of questions await Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt Jr looks on during a news conference in Mooresville, N.C., Wednesday, June 13, 2007. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is joining Hendrick Motorsports, hopefully moving one step closer to a championship that has eluded him while driving for his late father's company. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - In the biggest free-agent signing in NASCAR history, Dale Earnhardt Jr. agreed to a five-year deal with Hendrick Motorsports.

The move joins NASCAR's most popular driver with the most dominant team, putting Earnhardt a step closer to his goal of winning a championship. But there are plenty of questions to be answered before Earnhardt begins his new ride.

Q: What car will Earnhardt drive?

A: Nobody knows. He's replacing Kyle Busch in the Hendrick stable, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll get Busch's No. 5 Chevrolet. Hendrick has to play around with his alignments, and could wind up putting Junior in the No. 25 that Mears currently pilots.

"Rick kind of put it to me that he don't really know how the teams will be structured next year," Earnhardt said. "He might squish it all together and split it back up again. I don't think it's nearly as simple as taking Casey out of one car and putting me in here or there."

Q: What number does Earnhardt prefer?

A: The No. 8, of course. That's the number he's had since 1999, and his grandfather, Ralph, raced with it during his career. NASCAR leases numbers to teams, and Dale Earnhardt Inc. holds the rights to the 8. Junior said Wednesday he'd love it if Rick Hendrick could work out some sort of swap with his stepmother, Teresa, to buy the 8 for him to use.

That puts the issue in DEI's hands, and it's not clear if Teresa Earnhardt is willing to agree. Max Siegel, president of DEI's global operations, said Thursday he had not discussed the issue with his boss and all scenarios regarding the number are hypothetical at this point.

Q: Will Budweiser be Junior's sponsor?

A: It doesn't look like it. Hendrick has four primary sponsors locked onto his cars through 2008 and said he doesn't plan to tear up any existing contracts to make room for Budweiser.

Junior is widely associated with the beer company, and Anheuser-Busch officials would like to stay with the driver. But it may not be up to them, and Bud could end up on the losing end of this deal.

Q: Junior joining Hendrick makes the organization the New York Yankees of NASCAR. All that talent in one place could be bad news for the little teams. How does NASCAR feel about it?

A: NASCAR apparently doesn't mind, as evidenced by chairman Brian France's statement shortly after Wednesday's announcement. "It should be noted that high-profile partnerships have always been a part of NASCAR's competitive history. There have been so many great partnerships involving people of great character and ability. We're proud of what they have brought to our sport. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always said that first and foremost, he wants to win a Nextel Cup Series championship. We wish him the best of luck."

Q: Where does DEI stand in all this?

A: After five weeks, DEI is finally ready to start the post-Junior era. Martin Truex Jr. scored DEI's first win of the season two weeks ago in Delaware to boost spirits. Now that Earnhardt's deal is resolved, company officials can step up their search for his replacement.

Busch is tops on their list of candidates, and at just 22 he's got a long and lucrative career ahead. DEI also could end up with Bud back on the car if the sponsor is shuffled out with Earnhardt.

Q: What happens to Earnhardt's crew, particularly Tony Eury Jr., his cousin and crew chief?

A: A lot of those guys are still under contract. Eury has one season left on his deal. Expect him to try to get out and go with Earnhardt, but it might be complicated: Hendrick already has four solid crew chiefs that came up through his organization.

Q: How does Teresa feel about all this?

A: Good question. The wife of the late Dale Earnhardt is reclusive when it comes to speaking publicly, and she's not said much since her infamous Dec. 14 interview with The Wall Street Journal that questioned Earnhardt's commitment and ignited the firestorm that led to his departure.

Earnhardt said the parting is unfortunate, and he's been bothered by the beating Teresa has taken on message boards and in chat rooms.

"They've beaten Teresa up pretty bad … and I don't think that's fair," he said. "She's not evil. We just don't get along. We don't see eye to eye. She makes an effort and made an effort. All these things have been unfortunate and they bother me a bit, and I had to quit reading the Internet."

Q: Earnhardt will be teammates with Jeff Gordon, the driver his fans despise. How will that sit with "The Red Army?"

A: Remains to be seen. But unlike his earlier decisions, which stressed him to no end because he wasn't sure how the fans would react, Earnhardt isn't as worried. He knows some will have a hard time accepting the alliance, but hopes they'll get over it once he starts winning races in a Hendrick Chevrolet.

"I know it's going to be 50-50, hot and cold. That's just the way it is. You try to do things for you and hope that people can understand that," he said.

Q: Because Gordon has an equity stake at Hendrick Motorsports, does that make him Junior's boss?

A: Probably not. Gordon is listed as the car owner for Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet, but it has yet to mean anything in terms of power for the four-time champion. He defers to Hendrick on all management decisions and basically is just collecting cash as part of his ownership stake.

Q: So does Junior have ownership equity?

A: Nope. He's got only a contract, and it's not even signed yet. The sides have agreed in principle but still have licensing and other issues to iron out. When it's completed, Hendrick said Earnhardt won't even be the highest-paid driver in the stable.

Q: So can he win a championship?

A: He hopes so, as does Rick Hendrick, who said he's already feeling the pressure to get Earnhardt onto the stage for the end of the year awards ceremony. If anyone can do it, though, it's Hendrick. His drivers have won six championships and 10 of the last 14 races.


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