When Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced last month that he would leave his family team after this season to join Hendrick Motorsports, the question arose whether Dale Earnhardt Inc. had a future without NASCAR's most popular driver.
DEI answered that question Wednesday by merging with another mid-level NASCAR team, Ginn Racing, not only to prepare for life after "Junior" but also to better compete against the stock-car racing's most powerful teams such as Hendrick and Roush Fenway Racing.
The newly merged Chevrolet team will keep the name Dale Earnhardt Inc. and will field four cars -- the most allowed by NASCAR for a single team -- starting Sunday at the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt will continue driving the team's No. 8 Chevy for the remainder of the season. His DEI teammates, Paul Menard (No. 15) and Martin Truex Jr. (No. 1), also will keep driving for the new team. Driving duties for its fourth car, the No. 01 Chevy, will be divided between two former Ginn drivers, veteran Mark Martin and 23-year-old rookie Aric Almirola.
Ginn had recruited Almirola from Joe Gibbs Racing only last week, as part of a team reorganization in which veteran drivers Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek were released.
Regan Smith, another rookie driver at Ginn who had been sharing the No. 01 car with Martin, originally was to drive in the Brickyard 400. Now, he will compete Friday night in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis, the team said.
"This merger is great for both companies," Max Siegel, DEI's president of global operations, said in a statement. "Our stated goals included an expansion to four cars as quickly as possible and, in order to do that, we had to acquire more shop space."
Ginn has a 180,000-square-foot facility in Mooresville, N.C., only five miles from DEI's facility.
The team was named after Ginn principal Bobby Ginn, a wealthy real estate developer, who took control of struggling MB2 Motorsports with his partners late last year. Ginn nearly won NASCAR's most prestigious race, the Daytona 500, in February when Martin lost by a nose to Kevin Harvick of Richard Childress Racing.
"We came close ... and today we feel as if we have done one better by partnering with a company with the legacy of Dale Earnhardt Inc.," Ginn said.
That legacy was threatened this year when Earnhardt and Teresa Earnhardt, his stepmother and the team's owner, couldn't reach terms on a new contract for the driver.
Teresa Earnhardt inherited the team when Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time Cup champion, was killed in the Daytona 500 in 2001. But she and the younger Earnhardt have a chilly relationship, and Earnhardt will join Hendrick in 2008, replacing Kyle Busch.
There is speculation that Busch, in turn, might join DEI next year. Financial terms of the merger, or the ownership stakes of Teresa Earnhardt and Ginn, were not immediately available.
Hendrick -- whose drivers include four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, reigning champ Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears, in addition to Busch -- has dominated the Cup season so far, with 10 wins in 19 races.
But DEI hadn't folded even before Wednesday's merger. The team announced an engine-building venture with Childress this year, and Truex earned his first career Cup victory for DEI in June by winning at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.