One way or another, DEI to add fourth team

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Earnhardt, Inc., will move to four Nextel Cup Series teams by 2009, be it through the acquisition of another team or the addition of a fourth team in-house, team executive John Story said Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Story said DEI has been in discussions with Robert Yates Racing for four-to-six weeks about a partnership, but cautioned that those talks are preliminary and that no documentation has been exchanged between the teams.

"One way or another we're going to start a fourth team," Story said. "What's great about the Yates organization is he's got a lot of great employees as well. So you wouldn't be starting a new team. You could come right out of the box competitive from day one.

"I think [a merger] could very easily happen, you just have to have two like-minded organizations. [Yates] also has a lot of opportunities. They can continue doing things exactly in the direction as they are, or they could merge with somebody or Robert could sell his company."

Story also said this isn't the first time DEI and Yates have talked. They had discussions last year, as well.

"I don't know how serious they got [last year]," Story said. "I don't know if it's more serious now than it was then -- I wasn't here then. We've had high-level conversations, a lot of what-if scenarios."

If DEI were to acquire Yates, one of the two teams would have to forsake its manufacturer. Yates, a Ford flagship team for nearly two decades, would move to Chevrolet; or DEI, whose founder, Dale Earnhardt, won seven championships in Chevrolets, would move to Ford.

"The only proposal we have right now for a manufacturer next year is from Chevrolet," Story said. "Teresa [Earnhardt] has been tremendously loyal to Chevrolet for a lot of years. We've had some conversation with a couple other manufacturers.

"They've called to inquire what our contract situation was. We told them, in fairness, we are going to sit down and exhaust our options with Chevrolet first, and if the opportunity came up we'd talk to somebody else. We haven't seen anything in writing from anybody else."

RYR president Doug Yates said they'd rather stay in Fords, and that Ford Racing officials see a DEI merger as a way to get Ford back to prominence in Nextel Cup.

But he didn't rule out a manufacturer switch.

"That's a real tough one for us," Yates said. "Ford got us here. But in business and in life opportunities only come around every so often, and you have to weigh out the pros and cons for each situation and make your best decision."

The ultimate goal, Yates said, is to catch up to the mega-teams currently dominating the sport.

"It's going on everywhere in this garage," Yates said. "I've never seen this sport quite like this before. Everybody's scrambling to get to four teams; everybody's scrambling to get a billionaire owner. Everybody's scrambling to beat Rick Hendrick."

How this impacts Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s contract negotiations isn't known, but Story said a deal with Ford and RYR isn't contingent on Earnhardt Jr. staying at DEI. Earnhardt Jr. wants controlling interest in DEI, but Chevrolet officials want to keep him.

"I don't know that he's crucial to the acquisition of Yates," Story said. "But we have to put the absolutely best equipment under Dale Jr., and any other driver at DEI. That's what we're going to do. If we were to acquire Yates, or start a fourth car, that's going to be a step in the right direction to get our performance where it needs to be."

Yates said they wouldn't mind an association with Junior, either.

"It's no secret, Dale Jr. is the man," Yates said with a grin. "Everybody would love to be associated with him and his organization."

If the Yates merger doesn't come to fruition, Story said they could add a fourth team. DEI is also talking other teams about partnerships, Story said.

"There aren't a lot of teams out there that are anxious to merge or be sold," Story said. "We've talked to a lot of sponsors, too. It's not necessarily about acquisition. There are other sponsors out there that want to come into the sport and be affiliated with a brand like DEI.

"DEI is still the strongest brand in the sport. Other teams are more consistent in the competition department. We feel like that's temporary. We're going to be the best on the track and off the track.

"We made a commitment to our employees and our drivers that we will stop at nothing to get our performance where it needs to be, and where our drivers and crew members tell us it has to be. If that includes expansion through acquisition that's what we'll do."

Marty Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com