Back Off Track

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Just when you thought it was safe to continue believing Dale Earnhardt Inc. was back on the rails and headed in the right direction, there's another little glitch that throws the whole thing over again.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished in the top 10 three straight races and his chances for making the Chase are better than they were six weeks ago. Of course, a snowball had a better chance of living through a weekend in Hell six weeks ago, but no matter.

Now comes the news that Michael Waltrip will be leaving DEI at the end of the season, and likely taking sponsor NAPA with him.

A persistent rumor had been rumbling in the NEXTEL Cup garage that all was not well with DEI, Waltrip and NAPA for several weeks. Waltrip's contract with the team required that his option be picked up May 1 or he would be free to negotiate with other teams for another ride in 2006.

It wasn't, and Waltrip and DEI negotiated back and forth for an extension. Negotiations went on and on until last week, when the plug was apparently pulled.

If you're like me, you're wondering. I'm wondering just what the hell has happened inside Garage Mahal that the brain trust—specifically Richie Gilmore and Steve Hmiel—would allow a two-time Daytona 500 winner and a sponsor that has been nothing but loyal to skip town without so much as a by-your-leave.

As for Waltrip, there is a second Haas CNC car—read Hendrick satellite team—rumored to be in his future, although that is a rumor at this stage. It looks like Mark Martin will return for a Salute to You Too tour in 2006 to keep his seat warm for Jamie McMurray in the Roush Racing No. 6 Ford, and Waltrip is facing the same problem as Sterling Marlin in terms of driving for Miller Lite at Penske Racing South: he's too old for the demographic.

There was an addendum to the whisper that Waltrip would be leaving and taking NAPA with him: that Waltrip would put NAPA on the side of his own Michael Waltrip Racing cars and race his own stuff until Toyota came into Cup in 2007 (or beyond, as is more likely the case). Brother Darrell races Toyotas in the Truck Series, which is probably where that info originated. But Michael nixed the MWR rumor himself, and Toyota is an unknown quantity in terms of Cup plans.

Martin Truex Jr. will be racing the No. 1 car next year in Cup with Bass Pro Shops as the sponsor. In an era where it seems like the more cars a team has, the better it performs, it seems like DEI is bucking that trend just to spite itself.

I don't know the ins and outs of the contract negotiations, but I do know this. In a day and age where how fast you go depends largely upon stable, long-term sponsorship, none of this makes sense.

Wherever it is that he winds up, I would imagine that Waltrip will get a special little thrill about taking his sponsor with him and beating the brains out of DEI every chance he gets.

Of course, maybe he already has.

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