If Earnhardt Jr.'s bluffing, he's good at it

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to hire the best law firm he can find. And a powerful sports agent accustomed to negotiating franchise-altering deals.

This isn't just a contract negotiation now. We're talking about a hostile takeover of a growing company.

When Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday he wants majority ownership in Dale Earnhardt Inc., he turned a wheel into the big leagues.

No, not NASCAR's big leagues. This is the big leagues of the business world, where people do what they must to get what they want.

We're way beyond a family feud. Earnhardt Jr. essentially is telling stepmom Teresa Earnhardt that he should own DEI; that he is DEI and he can run it better than she can.

Well, somebody isn't just a race car driver any longer. Everyone looks at Earnhardt Jr. in a different light today. He's no longer the aw-shucks Nextel Cup star hoping to get a little piece of the family business in his new contract.

We met the new Dale Jr. Thursday, the serious, look-you-in-the-eye man who believes it's time to take control of his father's legacy.

Earnhardt Jr. was asked on ESPN2's "NASCAR Now" if he wanted 51 percent of DEI.

"Actually 100 percent would be nice," he said, and he wasn't laughing.

Forbes magazine last year listed the net worth of DEI at $57 million. Some NASCAR executives believe that figure is too low; thinking $75 million to $100 million is more accurate.

Whatever it is, Earnhardt Jr. wants it. Some Cup drivers think he can get it. Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick all said Thursday that Junior is in an advantageous position.

"Junior has the leverage he wants," Burton said.

Before dropping the bombshell about wanting majority ownership, Earnhardt said repeatedly Thursday he finally understands his worth. He said his sister, Kelley, tells him, but he didn't realize it in the past. Now he does.

Kelley is Junior's negotiating partner. She's a bright young woman, but if Junior really wants to win this showdown, it's time to call in some heavy hitters.

A ruthless reputation wouldn't hurt. Baseball mega-agent Scott Boras, perhaps?

Earnhardt Jr. said he has a vision of where he wants DEI to go. He discussed it Wednesday with Max Siegel, DEI's new president of global operations.

Earnhardt Jr. likes Siegel, saying he's a "man of integrity." Junior didn't elaborate on their conversation, but it's clear he wanted to check out Siegel and show Siegel he means business.

Earnhardt's probable message? "Here's what we're doing wrong. Here's what we can do better. Here's where I can take us if I'm in charge."

Siegel is a brilliant guy, a cum laude graduate of Notre Dame Law School. But he must be wondering, "What have I gotten myself into here?" He's the middleman in an ugly financial fight between two parties who aren't speaking.

Teresa isn't about to hand over the keys to the DEI kingdom. But will the kingdom crumble without Earnhardt Jr.? What is DEI without Junior?

Not much, and Junior knows it. Budweiser will go wherever Earnhardt Jr. goes, just as UPS left Robert Yates Racing to stick with Dale Jarrett this season on Michael Waltrip's Toyota team.

Teresa has two choices. She can accept her stepson's proposal, sell him 51 percent of DEI and become a minority owner. Most people see her as an absentee owner now (Harvick called her a "deadbeat owner") and she can keep skipping races and live her life as she pleases.

Not likely.

Or she can refuse to give Earnhardt Jr. controlling interest, calling his bluff (in her eyes) and believing he won't really leave. Even if he does, she would accept it and be willing to rebuild DEI without him.

Earnhardt Jr. was well-coached before talking to reporters on media day Thursday. In a subtle way, he stated his case, listed his reasons and discussed his options before getting to the main point of ownership.

Maybe it's all just a negotiating ploy. Say you want 51 percent so you can get 30 percent. If so, Junior should try celebrity poker in Las Vegas because he is one heck of a bluffer.

Earnhardt Jr. made sure to say he's close to team owner Richard Childress and speaks to him regularly. More leverage, of course.

If Earnhardt Jr. really wants to leave, a Childress Chevy is waiting. Toyota also gladly would find a place for him. Junior could say he negotiated in good faith and DEI couldn't give him what he wanted, so he's moving on.

But that's not what he wants. He wants his father's company because he believes he can make it better.

He might not say it directly, but his feelings are obvious. Six years after Dale Sr.'s death, Earnhardt Jr. doesn't think DEI is where it should be.

He has a major problem with Teresa's leadership. He's still upset over her Wall Street Journal statement, calling it a "low blow." Teresa said in December that Earnhardt Jr. needs to decide if he wants to be a race car driver or a public personality.

At the time, it seemed like a curt remark, but it makes more sense now if Junior already had asked for majority ownership.

You can imagine Teresa scoffing and thinking, he doesn't know who he wants to be, much less run this company.

This is a serious confrontation with major financial ramifications. It isn't going away and it could have a negative effect on Earnhardt's 2007 season.

He's going to hear contract questions every time he speaks publicly. This situation rarely works out well for any team. It's hard to stay focused on racing when you're unsure about the future.

But Earnhardt Jr. knows what he's doing. Any hint of naiveté is long gone. This is the shrewd Junior, the one playing for keeps.

Now he really is his father's son.

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