WHAT'S NEXT for Dale Earnhardt Jr.? That's the question du jour in the gossip bubble known as the Nextel Cup garage. Earnhardt's contract with Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI), the company founded in 1996 by his late father and now owned by his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, expires at the end of the season. Junior, who has a somewhat frosty relationship with Teresa, says he'll re-sign only if he's given majority ownership (something Dale Sr. had always envisioned), but negotiations have been stuck in neutral for months. Late on the afternoon of April 15, however, with 10 laps to go in the Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Little E did something that just might energize those discussions: He briefly left DEI for Hendrick Motorsports.
For much of the race Junior's DEI-owned number 8 Chevy was the class of the field. He led 96 laps and appeared headed for his first win of '07 when, on Lap 252 of 334, Tony Stewart spun in front of him, forcing Earnhardt to hit the brakes. Kyle Busch, who was directly behind Junior, plowed into the back of the 8 car, and eventually both puttered into the garage with mangled machines.
As Earnhardt was talking to reporters during the closing minutes of the race, a member of Busch's pit crew tapped Earnhardt on the shoulder. "Want to take some laps?" the crewman asked, explaining that Busch had left the speedway. Earnhardt grinned and hopped into the Rick Hendrick-owned number 5 Chevy and roared around the Texas track for the final 10 laps, earning points for Busch's car. The laps didn't count toward Junior's total, and he was credited with a 36th-place finish, dropping him from 11th to 18th in the points race. Still, it was a tantalizing taste of Hendrick horsepower for Earnhardt—and perhaps a glimpse of things to come.
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, April 23, 2007