By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
MOORESVILLE, N.C. (AP) - For Dale Earnhardt Jr., winning is everything. That's what his daddy taught him.
And by ditching his namesake company to find a more competitive ride, Junior gave his own lesson in life: Not even blood is thicker than winning.
NASCAR's most popular driver ended months of contentious contract negotiations with his stepmother Thursday, announcing he will leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the season because he and Teresa Earnhardt can't agree on a common vision for the family business.
"It is time for me to continue his legacy in the only way I know I can - by taking the life lessons that he told me: Be a man, race hard and contend for championships," Junior said. "That's what I intend to do, and I feel strongly that I would have myfather's blessing."
Earnhardt had tried to reach a new deal with his stepmother. But the bargaining turned tense after she publicly questioned his commitment, and Junior later said their relationship "ain't a bed of roses."
So he'll move on, starting what should be a frenzied free agency period that could shake the sport by causing long-term ripple effects in driver salary and sponsor deals.
He's already NASCAR's highest-paid driver, earning $20.1 million per year, a million more than No. 2 Jeff Gordon.
And the bidding has already begun.
"704-662-9642, tell him that's my phone number," said car owner Chip Ganassi, who lured Juan Pablo Montoya away from Formula One this season to drive one of his Dodges.
Perhaps Teresa Earnhardt should shout out her phone number, too, now that she must rebuild the company without its star.
"While we are very disappointed that Dale Jr. has chosen to leave the family business, we remain excited about our company's future," she said in a statement. "Dale and I built this company to be a championship contender, and those principles still apply. Dale Earnhardt Inc. will win."
The late Dale Earnhardt started DEI in 1980 as a little company he hoped to someday hand over to his four children. DEI had grown into one of NASCAR's elite teams when Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, but it slowly has deteriorated since. The team currently fields cars for Earnhardt, Martin Truex Jr. and rookie Paul Menard.
Despite 17 career victories, Junior has never been a consistent championship contender. He flirted briefly with the title in 2004 but had a horrendous 2005 season, when his stepmother split up his crew and he finished a career-worst 19th in the standings.
Earnhardt rebounded slightly last season, when he made the Chase and finished fifth. He's yet to show any muscle this season, with three top-10 finishes through 10 races.
"At 32 years of age, the same age my father was when he made his final and most important career decision, it's time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships now," he said.
Earnhardt agonized over the decision and said telling DEI's employees on Thursday morning was one of the hardest things he's done. Underneath his party-boy persona, Junior cares terribly what people think and worries his father's fans will feel betrayed by this defection.
It's why he asked Darrell Waltrip, a friend and former rival of his father's, to fly in from Nashville.
His mother, Brenda Jackson, said her son struggles to understand his place in the sport.
"He never wants to upset anybody," she said. "As long as Dale Jr. is racing, the Earnhardt legacy is alive."
Earnhardt strongly believes his father's vision for DEI has been lost, and it's why he demanded 51 percent of the company during contract negotiations that started before the season began. His sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, had set a deadline to get the deal done by the end of the month.
"We never even got close," he said. "It's not the guy who gives me the biggest paycheck. There's some things you can't get with money - peace of mind and satisfaction in what you do everyday.
"I'm seeking to have that peace of mind and that comfort to be able to really be an asset to somebody. I want to go somewhere and really make things happen for somebody."
Although there's been speculation that Earnhardt will field his own Nextel Cup team out of JR Motorsports, his sister said it wasn't ideal.
"I believe our first choice would be to drive for another top, competitive team," Elledge said. "Our last choice would be to form our own Cup team. If that was necessary, that would be what we would do."
"We're going to listen to everybody," Earnhardt added.
Earnhardt will likely first look inside the Chevrolet camp, which boasts three of the top teams in NASCAR.
Richard Childress Racing, where his father won six of his seven championships, is an obvious suitor. Junior has maintained a close relationship with the car owner, who still holds the rights to Dale Earnhardt's black No. 3.
"I've got to do a little soul searching on how I feel driving the No. 3 car," Earnhardt said.
RCR could add him as the fourth and final team NASCAR permits each owner, and it would team Earnhardt with Kevin Harvick, who replaced his father and has openly invited Junior to join the organization.
Hendrick would have to shuffle personnel to make room for Junior in its four-car stable, but could farm him out to one of the teams it assists. Ginn Racing has proved to be competitive this season using Hendrick motors, and Ginn general manager Jay Frye's intrigued.
"Will we be interested in talking to him? Absolutely. And so will everybody else," Frye said.
The wildcard could be Joe Gibbs Racing, another powerful three-car Chevy team that would pair him with buddies Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin. Gibbs is coach of the Washington Redskins, and Earnhardt is die-hard fan.
But speaking after practice Thursday, Gibbs didn't sound as if his team is in the mix.
"I think anybody in the sport would be interested in Junior," Gibbs said. "It's just that I'm sure he's got a game plan and probably has a real good idea where he's going right now."
Earnhardt insists he and his sister will choose the team that gives him the best chance to win.
"I'll just have to see what's out there for us," Earnhardt said. "We're going to listen - it doesn't cost anything to listen - so we're going to listen to whoever has a conversation with us, and move from there."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)