His dad, Dale Earnhardt Sr., had a well-deserved reputation at the racetrack for never hesitating to trade paint—that is, deliver a high-speed bump—to anyone who got in his way. But as Dale Jr., the most popular driver on the NASCAR circuit, announced on May 10 that he was leaving the racing team founded by his late father who was killed in 2001—and is now run by his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt—he tried to take the high road. "She's a smart businesswoman and always tried to be fair," Junior told PEOPLE. Somehow, though, he couldn't entirely muffle the bluntness that was his dad's trademark. "[Our relationship] has never been that great," he says of Teresa. "We just made do."

The split sent a shudder through the race car world, given Dale Jr.'s status as NASCAR's premiere personality. "He's our Brad Pitt," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, NASCAR legend and a longtime family friend. According to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Dale Jr. made $25.7 million last year in endorsements, salary and winnings. All the same, in recent years Junior, 32, has had only middling success on the track—and he insisted his decision to become a free agent stemmed from a desire to get out from under his stepmother's control and work for a company with the technology necessary to be a more consistent winner.

In many ways the family feud has been simmering ever since Dale Jr. was a boy. From the start, Junior clashed with his father's new wife, Teresa. "They never got along," says Gary Hargett, one of Dale Sr.'s close friends. "They sent Junior to a military school. They said they couldn't control him, but it was because he didn't get along with Teresa."

But it was during those difficult years that a deep bond developed between Dale Jr. and his big sister Kelley. She recalls that when her brother was sent off to military school, she asked her parents a month later if she could join him. "He was so small, I didn't want him to be there alone," says Kelley, 34, who is married to Jimmy Elledge, the crew chief for another team. (She and Junior have a half brother, Kerry; Dale Sr. and Teresa also had a daughter, Taylor.) The bond has continued to this day, with Kelley establishing herself as her brother's closest confidante and business manager. Says Hargett: "Kelley is his backbone."

In a statement Teresa said she was "disappointed that Dale Jr. has chosen to leave the family business." She pledged that DEI (for Dale Earnhardt Inc.) would continue to thrive, though accomplishing that goal may not be so easy. (Teresa declined to comment for this article.) Without Jr., "It's almost as if they're starting from scratch, "says Darrell Waltrip, TV analyst and former driver. Dale's supporters point out that while DEI is based in Mooresville, N.C., much of the time Teresa is an absentee owner and spends little time at the track. "As an owner, I would be more involved," says Junior, who wanted more control of the company.

So what would the notoriously cantankerous Dale Sr. have made of this nasty split? Probably nothing that would be printable. But Dale Jr. is confident that his father, who was single-minded in his devotion to success on the track, would give him a thumbs up. "He would understand my wanting to be where I could win," says Dale Jr.

  • Contributors:
  • Michaele Ballard/Charlotte.