Junior's longtime relationship with Budweiser in question

ST. LOUIS -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has launched a race of his

When the NASCAR star announced Wednesday that his sponsorship
deal with Anheuser-Busch Cos. is up in the air, he threw into
question a nearly decade-long partnership that is one of the most
recognizable corporate sponsorships in the sporting world.

The nation's biggest brewer has made its name synonymous with
Earnhardt's No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. If Anheuser-Busch loses
Earnhardt's contract, it could affect the brewer's overall
marketing plan, said Benj Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer's

"It's been a long-term lynchpin of their sponsorships,"
Steinman said.

Anheuser-Busch still holds massive sponsorship contracts with
high-profile events, such as the Super Bowl. But Earnhardt is a
particularly profitable athlete to sponsor because many of his fans
are beer drinkers, Steinman said.

Earnhardt suggested Wednesday the field is open for other
companies to swoop in and put their tag on his car now that he has
joined Hendrick Motorsports.

"Rick [Hendrick] has to decide what will fit in the cupboard
and what won't. I want to give him the best opportunity to put
together the best deal that will help," Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt's contract with Anheuser-Busch isn't set to expire for
another year. Like any good NASCAR racer, he was quick to give
praise to his current sponsor Wednesday.

"I like Budweiser, and they're funner than hell," he said.

The feelings of warmth seemed mutual.

"Anheuser-Busch has enjoyed a remarkable relationship with Dale
Earnhardt Jr. since our sponsorship commenced back in 1999," Tony
Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of global media and sports
marketing, said in an e-mail statement.

Ponturo suggested the company wasn't prepared to let Earnhardt
slip away too easily.

"We look forward to exploring options with Hendrick Motorsports
and JR Motorsports to continue Budweiser's relationship with him as
he enters this new stage of his racing career," Ponturo said.

An Anheuser-Busch spokesman said Ponturo wouldn't comment beyond
the brief statement or discuss any details of the company's
contract with Earnhardt.

Earnhardt has driven under the Budweiser crown since he started
his NASCAR career. Earnhardt will replace 22-year-old Kyle Busch at
Hendrick Motorsports. It's possible that Hendrick could trade
Busch's No. 5 to Earnhardt's former company DEI for the No. 8, if
Busch signs with Earnhardt's old team.