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Earnhardt tries to keep focus on racing

By Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

AUTO RACING

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — He’s NASCAR’s most popular driver, with a devoted fan base known as The Red Army. He’s mobbed at tracks, stars in commercials with Jay-Z and routinely is invited everywhere from the MTV Music Awards to parties with the Playboy playmates.

Yet for a long time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t seem to realize his worth.

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"You don’t like public opinion or media opinion to sway your decisions, but in this case, I have a real bad habit of being way too modest about my position in this sport," Earnhardt said." A lot of people, including the media, have sort of helped me understand what I’m actually worth — what the situation really is."

The deal is Earnhardt’s contract with Dale Earnhardt Inc. is up at the end of the year. Apparently, he finally received the memo that he holds all the cards.

He opened Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway by announcing he wants majority stake in DEI, the company formed by his late father and now run by his stepmother, Teresa.

"I think in any set of business negotiations, you’ve got to ask for it (all)," said Max Siegel, new president of global operations at DEI.

"When people don’t want the most and the best for themselves, and they’re not pushing me to be the best I can possibly be, you’ve got to wonder why you’re in business with them."

But it took the past six weeks for Earnhardt to recognize he had the power to ask for the moon.

Last December, he was offended when Teresa Earnhardt seemingly questioned his commitment in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. He went public with his frustration during preseason testing here, opening his heart and describing an icy relationship with his stepmother that "ain’t no bed of roses."

Sympathy and support for Junior came pouring in from fans and even rival drivers Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick, who referred to Teresa as "a deadbeat owner."

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Now, Junior finally has made it clear he wants to stay at DEI, provided he gets what he wants. If he doesn’t, he just might walk and take sponsor Budweiser with him. The beer company has closely tied itself to Earnhardt as a pitchman, and its DEI deal also is up at the end of this season.

It adds up to what promises to be the most closely watched contract negotiations in NASCAR history. It’s also a major distraction that could derail his entire season.

Some predict this is the year he’ll finally win his first Nextel Cup championship. For that to happen, Junior will have to make sure the contract issue isn’t carried into the race track every weekend and that his personal situation doesn’t derail the entire DEI organization, which includes Martin Truex Jr. and rookie Paul Menard.

Truex said he doesn’t believe it will be an issue.

"Everybody knows what their job is," he said. "We go to the race track or to the shop every day. And none of that changes as far as what everybody is doing and what they’re working on and what they’re trying to accomplish. I don’t think it distracts anybody."

DEI will do its part to prevent it from happening, Siegel said. Even though Teresa Earnhardt has removed herself from negotiations, the team president said her top priority is getting a deal completed and winning a championship.

Junior’s been on an upswing since a disastrous 2005 season that saw him miss the Chase for the championship and finish a career-worst 19th in the standings. It all went awry when the higher-ups at DEI mistakenly decided it would be a good idea to swap Earnhardt’s crew with teammate Michael Waltrip’s.

It put Junior in a huge hole early in the season, and he had his old crew back for the final 10 races of the year. Recovering was hard. The No. 8 team made terrific inroads last season — he finished fifth in the points but was mathematically eligible to win the title down the stretch.

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Although the late Earnhardt won seven championships, none of them were with DEI, whose only titles were the four Busch crowns won by Earnhardt Jr. and Truex.

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