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"Not many people know the real story here," Junior says.
"I think I do," I reply.
"I think you do too," Earnhardt says.
The reason Dale Jr. left DEI can be summed up in two words: Teresa Earnhardt. Junior and Teresa have a complicated relationship, just like any son and stepmother. Going back deep into Earnhardt's childhood the two have been waging a power struggle. One example: When Junior was 12 it was largely Teresa's decision to send him to military school for a year and a half. "Sure as hell wasn't my decision," Earnhardt says with a laugh.
If Teresa had handed operational control of DEI over to Junior and given him majority ownership of the company—two things, in fact, that Dale Sr. told me in '00 in one of his last extensive interviews that he wanted Junior to have—Earnhardt would have signed a contract extension. "Me and Teresa do not see eye to eye," Earnhardt says. "My decision to leave was solely based on my relationship with my car owner. Man, I look at the fun that other drivers have with their owners. I want a guy who's going to be at the track and give me feedback. I want to feel really a part of an entire organization. That's a big part of racing, and I want that."
TURNS OUT JUNIOR WANTED RICK Hendrick. Five weeks after announcing he was leaving DEI, Earnhardt signed a long-term contract to drive for Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR's marquee team. Dale Jr.'s start with Hendrick is fast: He wins his first two races in the number 88 Amp Energy Chevy—the season-opening Budweiser Shootout and a Gatorade Duel qualifying race that takes place three days before the Daytona 500.
On the morning of Junior's ninth Great American Race we talk outside his motor home. "I couldn't be happier at Hendrick," Earnhardt says. "He's kind of like a father figure to me and has been for a long time. I guess you could say he's kind of filling a hole."
In his first year at Hendrick, Junior is solid but not a championship contender. He wins one race, qualifies for the Chase and then finishes 12th out of the 12 drivers in the 10-race playoff. The poor playoff run prompts even his fans to start using the dreaded o-word when describing their favorite driver: overrated.
"Maybe Junior has struggled a little to adapt to the culture of Hendrick," Jimmie Johnson said in '08. "It's a demanding place, and if you're not totally committed, you might struggle."