Disastrous Decisions In NASCAR History
The DEI Debacle
In 2007, 6 years after the death of Dale Earnhardt, his widow and owner of the team Teresa Earnhardt was in contract negotiations with DEI’s star driver, none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr. As reported at the time, Junior was being represented by his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge (now Miller). As part of those negotiations the Earnhardt siblings wanted Junior to be a full 51% owner of DEI, the company that his father had created and turned into one of the better teams in NASCAR. Teresa Earnhardt refused to sign such a deal, setting off a chain of events that effected 3 of NASCAR’s most well-known teams, numerous drivers and NASCAR history itself.
Earnhardt Jr. was courted by Joe Gibbs Racing, as well as Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick had the problem of already being at the 4 driver/team limit and as Rick Hendrick famously said, there ‘was no room at the inn’ for Dale Jr.
Hendrick ended up making room at the inn by releasing young Kyle Busch and hiring Earnhardt Jr. Busch, one of the most talented, promising yet polarizing young stars of the sport, was signed by Gibbs.
Kyle Busch, driving for Hendrick, made history by winning the first race ever run with the Car of Tomorrow in 2007
DEI, without their star (and the sport’s most popular driver), lost a host of sponsors and went into terminal decline, at one point partnering with a character named Bobby Ginn to survive and then with Ganassi but it was all for naught and it closed its doors as a racing operation for good in 2009.
DEI driver Michael Waltrip entered his own team, MWR, in partnership with financier Rob Kaufmann, into the Cup Series in 2007. The team was mired in controversy throughout its existence, closing its doors for good in 2015 when Kaufmann threw his money to Ganassi.
The MWR cheating scandal at Richmond was a giant nail in the coffin of the team
The demise of DEI had several more long-term effects on the sport. Martin Truex Jr. was a journeyman DEI driver who found himself without a job and ended up at MWR (where his career was seriously in danger after the MWR cheating scandal, which he had nothing to do with), and then Furniture Row, a small team out of Denver. Furniture Row would go on, with a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs, to briefly become a powerhouse in the sport, culminating in a championship run in 2017, after which Furniture Row itself shut down and Truex Jr. went to Gibbs.
Martin Truex Jr. after winning the 2017 NASCAR Cup Championship in the Furniture Row #78
Mark Martin drove for the Ginn/DEI combo in the U.S. Army-sponsored car, then moved on to a part time gig with MWR and then Hendrick, where he had a one of his most successful seasons in 2009, just barely missing out on the championship that eluded him throughout his career.
Mark Martin at DEI
Earnhardt Jr’s first few years at Hendrick were a miserable affair, with subpar performance and rotten luck. Not until Hendrick paired crew chief Steve Letarte with Junior would his career be resuscitated. Even with that, the closest he came to even sniffing a championship with Hendrick was 2013. Earnhardt Jr., due to lingering effects of serious concussions suffered during his career, ultimately retired in 2017.
Dale Jr.'s first points win for HMS
Kyle Busch, the odd man out in the entire DEI-Junior-Hendrick drama, found enormous success with JGR, winning 2 championships to date, racking up victories and operating (with JGR support) one of the best truck teams in the sport.
Junior and Kelly Earnhardt’s JRM, which was for a time a family-infused affair with their relatives the Eury’s, ultimately shed that business model and became a powerhouse in the Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series and a driver development pipeline for partner Hendrick Motorsports.
The headquarters of JRM in Mooresville, NC
Today, the DEI headquarters, which during its heyday was one of the most spectacular shops in NASCAR and nicknamed the Garage Mahal, sits quietly on rural road N.C. 3 in Mooresville, North Carolina. DEI, although no longer a race team, is still in the racing business through its Earnhardt Technologies Group. DEI is also home to a Dale Earnhardt museum and a venue for corporate meetings, weddings and other gatherings, as well as a philanthropy division in Dale Earnhardt's name.
None of this would have happened had Teresa Earnhardt signed the deal with Junior for co-ownership of DEI back in 2007.