Dale Earnhardt Inc. without Dale Jr. is the Green Bay Packers without Brett Favre, the Los Angeles Lakers without Kobe Bryant or the New Jersey Devils minus Martin Brodeur.

But that's what's happening after yesterday's announcement by Dale Jr. that he is leaving DEI, the racing company founded by his late father. DEI is the only racing employer Junior has had.

Junior, regarded as NASCAR's most popular driver, said negotiations with Teresa Earnhardt, his stepmother and chief executive officer of DEI, "weren't close."

"We both want to get to the same place, but we both have different visions on how to get there," he said. "I feel very comfortable with my decision."

Junior and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, want 51 percent of DEI's ownership. Kelley is vice president and general manager of JR Motorsports. Their mother, Brenda, attended yesterday's news conference. Brenda is Dale Sr.'s second wife.

According to Junior, his father's vision was for Junior to have a "huge role" in the company. "Throughout the negotiations, I felt like me and Kelley came to the understanding that that was not in the cards."

Responding to Junior's departure, Teresa Earnhardt, Dale Sr.'s third wife, said in a statement: "While we are very disappointed that Dale Jr. has chosen to leave the family business, we remain excited about our company's future. Dale [Sr.] and I built this company to be a championship contender, and those principles still apply."

Junior, 32, says he believes he will have a better chance of winning a NASCAR Nextel Cup championship driving for another team.

He said he has "shortchanged" his fans the last 2 years. Last year, Junior finished fifth in the Cup points standings, but won just one race.

After 10 races this season, he is 12th in points. That's the final qualifying position for the Chase for the Championship.

Saying he is "disappointed" about leaving DEI, he added that he'll understand if his fans also are disappointed.

Referring to DEI employees, Junior said, "I'll miss the relationships."

Junior spoke to the DEI staff before the news conference at his race shop in Mooresville, N.C.

Since he said he prefers to continue driving Chevrolets, his likeliest destination is Richard Childress Racing. Dale Sr. won six Cup series championships driving for RCR.

Jeff Burton (fifth in points), Kevin Harvick (eighth) and Clint Bowyer (10th) are RCR's current drivers.

Other top Chevrolet teams are Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. Hendrick's drivers are Jimmie Johnson, the reigning Cup champion; Jeff Gordon, this year's points leader; Kyle Busch (sixth in points) and Casey Mears (34th). NASCAR limits an owner to four teams.

Gibbs' drivers are two-time titlist Tony Stewart, 2000 Cup winner Bobby Labonte and Denny Hamlin (fourth in points).

A longshot destination for Junior is Toyota, which is struggling in its first season in the Cup series. Toyota has very deep pockets.

Indications are that Junior will take his Budweiser sponsorship to his new team.

In a statement, Tony Ponturo, vice president of global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch, Inc., said, "Budweiser and JR Motorsports have an agreement in place to ensure Dale Jr. will continue to personally represent Budweiser through 2008."

Junior said he would like to keep No. 8 for his race car, but car numbers are the property of team owners. If he doesn't keep No. 8 and winds up at RCR, he could drive the No. 3 Chevy. No driver has carried No. 3 since Dale Sr. died in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500.

The future of DEI without Junior and the Budweiser sponsorship isn't clear. Martin Truex Jr., from Mayetta, N.J., is in his second full Cup season driving for DEI.

Junior noted that he is the same age as his late father when Dale Sr. joined RCR.

"I feel strongly that I'd have my father's blessing," he said of his decision.

Since Junior began driving for DEI in 1998, he has won 17 Cup races and two Busch Series championships. His best finish in the Cup points standings was third, in 2003. *

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