MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- When the white-hot lights focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr. from close range Tuesday, it was easy to understand just how much the third-generation driver's life has veered out of control.
One hundred reporters muscled for position like they were fighting for a rebound. There were threats of punches as everyone pushed through the crowd of television cameras and tape recorders, each trying to get closer to young Earnhardt has he talked of his future in the family business.
The annual media tour before the racing season was void of fans, but that didn't ease the demands on the son of the seven-time Winston Cup Series champion. Instead of autographs, he was dishing out answers.
There were questions about his future with Dale Earnhardt Inc., questions about his personal life, questions about the upcoming season.
If nothing else, he's learned there's no escape from the family name and the fame that comes with it. But for the first time, he's trying to gain some control, no matter how insignificant.
''I don't want to get burned out before my time,'' he said.
Earnhardt ended months of speculation that he might follow his father's footsteps and drive cars for Richard Childress Racing by saying he finally reached an agreement with his stepmother's operation. He said they worked through the details of sponsor appearances and off-track de mands during a four-hour meeting Monday.
He then agreed to drive for DEI for the next five years.
Eight years ago he was making $6 an hour changing oil at his father's Chevrolet dealership; now he's the most intriguing and popular figure on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series circuit.
Earnhardt mentioned six months ago he hadn't signed an extension with the family team, now headed by Teresa Earnhardt.
It was a curious admission at the time, but he insisted both sides simply didn't have time to hammer out the details. In reality, it was a sort of power struggle.
By the end of the season, the contract remained unsigned and the rumors of his moving to Chil dress intensified. At the same time, Earnhardt was wrestling to regain small portions of his free time. His team has the enviable position as one of the best-funded operations in the sport, but with the help of several Fortune 500 companies comes extra demands of his time away from the track.
''Teresa has a lot of responsibility,'' he said. ''She's going to have to make a lot of big decisions here in the future. I want to help her as much as I can as much as she'll let me.
''I'm 28 years old, and I've got to put myself in position to win championships. I don't want to have to compromise too much to do that. Since drivers are contract labor, my primary focus is the team and driving for the team. I sell my services as a driver to the team, so I allot the team 40 appearances for whoever or whatever. That's all they get. I had to put a cap on it because there was no control.
''I just didn't want to give away every free day I had. I've cut my appearances from last year in half. That's going to help me a lot. Race car drivers can race into their 50s and still be competitive.
"But it's the stuff off the track that drives you away from the sport. Maybe this will be the future of contracts and I can be credited for it.''
''In the situation that I'm in now, you've got to understand, that no matter how you put it, no matter how long I'm there, I'm always going to be the son of the man who started the business and who envisioned it all,'' he said.
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