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Crunch Time

Bidding to take over his daddy's race team, Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw a strong Texas run end in a wreck, then a surprise test drive

THE UNCERTAIN future of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the hot topic du jour in the gossip bubble that is the Nextel Cup garages, is a subject about which his father had his own opinion. On a cool afternoon in the fall of 2000, just a few months before his death in an accident during the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt sat in the back of his black number 3 hauler at Rockingham (N.C.) raceway, stroked his mustache and considered what the future had in store for his youngest boy. "In the grand scheme of things, I'd like Junior to take over DEI [Dale Earnhardt Inc.] and run the entire operation," he told SI in one of his last extended interviews. "I'd like my other kids to be involved if they want, but really Dale Jr. has shown the most interest."

It's time for those words to become a reality: Little E deserves to have majority control of the company his father founded in 1996. His contract with DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt, his stepmother, expires at the end of the season, and Junior, who has a somewhat frosty relationship with Teresa, says he'll re-sign only if he's given majority ownership. Earnhardt and his sister Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, who's negotiating on his behalf, have set a June deadline for an extension, though the talks have been stuck in neutral for months. Late on Sunday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway, with 10 laps to go in the Samsung 500, Junior did something that might energize those discussions: He briefly left DEI for Hendrick Motorsports.

For much of the race Junior's DEI-owned number 8 Chevy was the class of the field. He led 96 laps and appeared headed for his first win of '07 when, on Lap 252 of 334, Tony Stewart spun in front of him, forcing Earnhardt to hit the brakes. Kyle Busch, who was directly behind Junior, plowed into the back of the 8 car, and eventually both puttered into the garage with mangled machines.

As Earnhardt was talking to reporters during the closing minutes of the race, a member of Busch's pit crew tapped Earnhardt on the shoulder. "Want to take some laps?" the crewman asked, explaining that Busch had left the speedway. Earnhardt grinned and hopped into the Rick Hendrick--owned number 5 Chevy and roared around the Texas track for the final 10 laps, earning points for Busch's car. This is permitted by NASCAR—the laps didn't count toward Junior's total, and he was credited with a 36th-place finish, dropping him from 11th to 18th in the points race. Still, it was a tantalizing ride for Earnhardt, who has long sought to have the kind of horsepower under the hood that is the hallmark of Hendrick Motorsports.

Afterward, Junior joked to reporters that he would drive Busch's car at Phoenix next week (hear that, Teresa?), but once the media scrum left, Earnhardt turned serious about his desire to stay at DEI, the only team he's driven for in his eight Cup seasons. As he walked to a waiting helicopter, his father's words from Rockingham in 2000 were relayed to him. He stopped. "My daddy was hoping to live to be 100 and then give the company to me," Junior said. "I wish he could have lived forever, but...."

Earnhardt didn't finish the sentence, so we will: It's time for Teresa to hand DEI over to Little E, which would fulfill his daddy's final dream. Junior's earned it.

ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tuesday and Friday.

Short Laps

1 Add the name of Jeff Burton (right) to the short list of bona fide Cup contenders. On Sunday, Burton won the Samsung 500—his first victory of the season—and he has now finished sixth or better in six of the first seven races this season. Burton and Jeff Gordon, who is first in the standings with an eight-point lead over Burton, were co-MVDs (most valuable drivers) of the first quarter of NASCAR's 26-race regular season.

2 We'll say it again to Mark Martin: Come back full time. On Sunday, Martin, 48, finished third and, despite sitting out the previous two races to be with his family, he's now 11th in the standings. If he switched to a full-time schedule, he would be a shoo-in for the Chase. Martin insists he'll skip the April 29 Talladega race. Stay tuned.

3 Before Sunday team owner Chip Ganassi hadn't placed two cars in the top 10 in 27 starts. But at Texas, rookie Juan Pablo Montoya piloted a Ganassi Dodge to an eighth-place finish and David Stremme, who's in his second full year with Ganassi, came in 10th—small victories for a team that's quietly building a solid foundation around its two talented drivers.



RISING SON Junior (in a Texas twist, above, and with Teresa in '02) hopes to take over at DEI.



[See caption above]