Junior's choice to leave DEI was the right decision

INDIANAPOLIS -- For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

You have to make the biggest decision of your life, a decision that will impact the rest of your career and how you are perceived.

So what do you do?

After months of soul-searching, Junior kept coming back to one inescapable fact: The company his father founded was no longer his father's company.

That led to one other conclusion: Junior didn't know if he could make Dale Earnhardt Inc. what he thought his father wanted it to be.

In the end, he felt he had to move on. It's the right decision.

Earnhardt couldn't continue to drive for a woman he doesn't respect. No matter how much they deny it or try to hide it, Teresa Earnhardt and Junior don't like each other.

The inner conflict for Junior didn't start with contract negotiations this season. For years, Earnhardt was torn between his feelings of obligation to stay in the family business his stepmother controlled and his concerns that DEI couldn't take him where he wanted to go.

His fears first surfaced publicly three years ago here at Indianapolis before the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. Earnhardt poured out his feelings about the direction of DEI and the problems of his relationship with his stepmother and his cousin, car chief Tony Eury Jr.

That led to a DEI decision before the 2005 season to swap crews and cars with Michael Waltrip. It was a horrendous mistake for both drivers. Earnhardt failed to make the Chase in the second year of the playoff format.

Earnhardt reconciled with Eury Jr., who became his crew chief in 2006, but his disgust with Teresa's leadership continued to grow.

Even if Teresa agreed to Junior's demands for controlling interest in DEI, Junior wasn't convinced he could make the organization a championship contender.

He didn't feel he could make DEI his company. And he didn't believe he could win a title there.

Junior was asked Thursday where he thought DEI would be today if his father were still alive.

"If he were still here, we would be in a different place right now," Junior said. "He was totally focused and devoted to the company. After he passed, it would be difficult for any individual, much less a group of people, to try to maintain that vision."

Junior finally resigned himself to the fact that DEI wasn't the team of his father's dreams. And it wasn't the place where Junior wanted to end his career.

At age 32, Junior knew it was time to change his life. Now everyone who follows NASCAR, whether they are Earnhardt fans or not, wants to see where he goes.

NASCAR officials have to love this. Earnhardt's saga is the biggest ongoing drama in sports right now, at least until Barry Bonds is one swing away from Hank Aaron's home run record.

It also takes some of the attention away from the negative talk about the drivers' hatred for the Car of Tomorrow and the continuing dominance of Hendrick Motorsports.

The Hendrick domination could escalate if Rick Hendrick decides to bring Earnhardt into the stable. That would require some major maneuvering by Hendrick, who already has four drivers under contract.

But you do whatever you have to do if you have a chance to sign the most marketable driver in racing.

On the marketing front, it doesn't get any better than having Earnhardt in a No. 3 Chevy for Richard Childress Racing.

Junior driving with the number Dale Sr. had for six of his seven championships is what the legion of Earnhardt fans always have wanted. The sale of die-cast cars alone would fill grandstands at Daytona.

But there's a problem people seem to forget. If Earnhardt drove the black No. 3 next season for RCR, he would need to qualify on speed at the first five races, including the Daytona 500.

That's true for anywhere Earnhardt goes if he has a car that didn't rank in the top 35 in team owner points for 2007.

It's possible a team could do what Ginn Racing did this year for Mark Martin. Bobby Ginn moved Joe Nemechek out of the No. 01 Chevy, gave that ride to Martin, and moved Nemechek to a new car with no owner points.

If I'm Clint Bowyer at RCR, I'd be a little concerned about that. And Casey Mears can't feel too safe at Hendrick these days, even with a contract through 2008.

The financial value of adding Earnhardt to an organization outweighs any problems it causes initially.

Earnhardt holds all the cards. He took a major step forward Thursday, but he still has difficult decision to make.

Earnhardt's heart and his head were in different places for a long time. Finally, those two things have come together.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.