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Earnhardt Elledge key to Junior's future

June 03, 2007|From the Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When doctors told Kelley Earnhardt Elledge she might have cancer and needed emergency surgery, her first thoughts were not about her health.

Instead, she found herself worrying about her kid brother -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"Please don't tell me anything is terminally wrong with me, because I don't want my brother to have to go through losing someone again," she fretted before a March operation to have a tumor removed from her pancreas.

Elledge has spent her entire life looking out for Junior, who has grown from a shy little boy often picked on at school into NASCAR's biggest star. Years ago, she made sure he had his lunch money for school; today, she's one of the most powerful people in the sport and the chief negotiator of Junior's free agency.

It's a full-time job as Elledge evaluates daily contract offers, sponsorship considerations, licensing concerns and everything else that surrounds Earnhardt and his estimated $20 million annual worth. Although she set an end-of-June deadline to get a new deal done, Elledge said Friday she'd like to get it wrapped up sooner.

Wife of Nextel Cup crew chief Jimmy Elledge and the mother of two young daughters, the 34-year-old acknowledged sleepless nights as the contract situation has consumed her life. Besides handling Earnhardt's personal affairs, she's also business manager for his race team, JR Motorsports.

It's a full plate, but those inside the industry believe Elledge is the best person to handle the job.

"The hardest part about a venture like this is knowing exactly what the driver wants and trying to find the right fit for him," said car owner Rick Hendrick. "It's even more important for Junior, because it's not about money for him. It's about feeling comfortable, and she's the only person who can truly know what that is.

"She knows him better than anybody, and she's got a lot of her daddy in her."

Those who knew the late Dale Earnhardt, killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, believe Elledge is most like him out of his four children.

One of the first drivers to organize licensing and merchandise, the elder Earnhardt formed a management company called Sports Images and put his daughter to work there. Armed with a business degree from North Carolina Charlotte -- she started college at North Carolina Wilmington, but he coaxed her back home -- Elledge rose through the company ranks and stayed on when it merged into Action Performance.

"She has a fiery business sense, is quick to respond, and when she has her mind made up, she is just like her dad," said Chris Williams, who worked with Elledge at both companies and now runs trackside sales for Motorsports Authentic.

"She has that killer instinct. Dale was the same way, and Kelley inherited his tenacity."

For the last five years, she has applied most of the skills toward managing her brother's career. Dale Sr. made most of Junior's business decisions before his death. With him gone, Elledge found her brother in immediate need of a caretaker.

She has always held that role for him, dating to when they were young children and their single mother often left them alone while she worked the third shift. Two years older than Earnhardt, Elledge cooked and cleaned, made sure he had lunch money and helped him finish his chores.

When they were later sent to live with their famous father and new stepmother, she helped Junior adjust and was his companion when they were left in the care of nannies.

Elledge has been the only constant in Junior's 32 years and remains the one person he knows he can count on unconditionally.

"All of our life, it's been he and I," she said. "The struggles we went through early ... we just really grew close. I was always the one looking out for him. It was like, 'Pick up your cereal bowl off the floor. Take the trash out. If you'll just do these few things, you can get along here.'

"He knows that I've always had his back. We just have a bond that I don't hear a lot of other people describe, in terms of trusting each other."

After working for his father on a handshake agreement, Junior leaned on his sister when stepmother Teresa put together his first official contract in 2002.

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