MOORESVILLE, N.C. – High above the showroom floor, Teresa Earnhardt surveyed her employees as they hurriedly finished setting up for a reception.
When everything was finally in place and her media guests had been seated, the owner of Dale Earnhardt Inc. gracefully made her way to the front of the crowd to deliver a brief welcoming address. Then, the woman who has spent the past seven years shunning the press, stepped off the stage and worked the room.
Although she disappeared before the formal presentation of DEI’s season goals, her effort didn’t go unnoticed. It was a huge step for Earnhardt, who has stayed out of the spotlight since husband Dale Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.
“Teresa’s been dedicated and devoted to the racing organization,” Max Siegel, the president of DEI’s global operations, said Wednesday at the season-preview luncheon. “There has been some miscommunication that’s been out there, and we’ve tried to surround her with a management team that can give her some comfort that things are being addressed and the right information is being disseminated and we are moving forward.
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“She has participated in this company, whether it’s out in front of behind the scenes, and I fully expect her to continue to do so.”
The perception has long been that Earnhardt is an absentee owner who cared little about the race team and focused more on preserving the legacy of her late husband. It didn’t help when the once-mighty organization hit a competition slump, and a personality conflict between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother caused friction in their negotiations on a contract extension.
When Earnhardt Jr. grew weary of feeling underappreciated, and became convinced DEI could not be competitive with his stepmother in charge, he decided to leave the company at the end of last season. The bulk of his enormous fan base turned on Teresa Earnhardt, classifying her as the wicked stepmother who was well on her way to running DEI into the ground.
But she’s taken numerous steps – some large, such as merging with Richard Childress Racing on an engine program and acquiring Ginn Racing to build a four-car team, and others as small as simply speaking publicly – to prove that DEI is dedicated to moving forward and winning its first Sprint Cup title.
Surprised to learn Teresa Earnhardt had mingled with the media, Earnhardt Jr. said putting herself out front is good for the company.
“Max is a great face for the business, and if it’s him, it’s him. She doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to,” Earnhardt Jr. said later Wednesday at Hendrick Motorsports, his new race team. “It’s up to her what she wants to do. If she wants to let Max handle it, then that’s who we should all respect as the leader of the company.
“But it would help, I think, the morale of the guys around there for her to plug in more into what’s going on, so when she does come up to you and make you a comment, you believe it’s sincere and you don’t think that’s just her way of putting in her two cents every six months.”
The soap opera surrounding Earnhardt Jr.’s departure now officially over, DEI is doing its best to focus on who is with the company and not the driver who no longer races the flagship No. 8 Chevrolet.
The team is proud of its four full-time teams, which will be championed by respected veteran Mark Martin, who was acquired in the Ginn merger and will pilot Earnhardt Jr.’s old ride for most of the season. Martin will split seat time with newcomer Aric Almirola, one of many young drivers DEI is grooming for the future.
The team also has Martin Truex Jr., who qualified for the Chase for the championship last season, and Paul Menard, who weathered a rocky rookie season that ultimately closed on an upswing. Regan Smith, another Ginn acquisition, will fill the lineup and run for rookie of the year honors.
But it’s hard to pretend that Earnhardt Jr. is no longer around. The majestic race shop seemed stripped of any mention of him, his 17 career victories and two Busch Series championships.
While not specifically addressing the whereabouts of Junior’s memorabilia, Siegel said DEI will still root for its son.
“I think on any given week, we have eight opportunities in three companies to make a positive impact on the Earnhardt legacy – Dale Jr. at Hendrick, the drivers over at RCR who are powered by Earnhardt-Childress (engines) and our five Cup drivers here,” Siegel said. “This company is focused on the improvement of this race team and becoming a fine organization across the board, we have a great team of people who are here.”
Unaware that all signs of him had vanished, Earnhardt Jr. said he didn’t take it as a personal slight.
“I don’t know what else you would expect,” he said. “I’ll tell you one thing – I don’t think there’s any animosity, and I don’t think they would do anything to directly insinuate that we’re totally free of that, or we don’t want to have anything to do with him or we don’t want to recognize his time here or whatever.
“I don’t think there’s any intention on that. I don’t think Max is like that, I don’t think Teresa is like that. If there is, it doesn’t matter to me, because it doesn’t matter to me. But I’m sure it looks different over there.”