Menard leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. to join Yates Racing next season

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Paul Menard will leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the season to drive for Yates Racing, The Associated Press has learned.

Menard is expected to announce Tuesday that both he and his sponsorship will move to Yates, a person familiar with Menard's decision told The AP. The person requested anonymity because Menard had yet to make his announcement.

The loss could be devastating to DEI because Menard's sponsor is his father's midwest-based hardware chain. The loss of driver and sponsor leaves DEI with just one full-time sponsor, three driversMonday night.

Without Menard, DEI has just one full sponsor in Bass Pro Shops for Martin Truex Jr. He recently agreed to a one-year extension with DEI that takes him through 2009, but is winless this season and failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship one year after his breakthrough season.

Sponsorship from the U.S. Army is expected to leave DEI at the end of the year -- perhaps for Tony Stewart's new team -- and that leaves DEI without funding for the No. 8 Chevrolet that Aric Almirola will pilot.

Regan Smith, the fourth driver in DEI's current stable, has had very limited sponsorship all season.

Because of the economy, sponsorship has been incredibly difficult to find this year and very little new business is coming into NASCAR. Instead, longtime sponsors are simply moving to the best teams, and the smaller organizations are struggling for funding.

Chip Ganassi Racing closed one of its three teams in late June when the team couldn't find a sponsor for Dario Franchitti, and Texaco later said it will leave the sport at the end of the season. Texaco's departure leaves star Juan Pablo Montoya will only a half-season of sponsorship lined up for next year.

Yates, meanwhile, has been fielding two cars this year with no full-time sponsorship. Instead, it's pieced together several different limited programs for David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil while receiving support from Roush Fenway Racing.

Although Menard is 22nd in the points and has just one top-10 finish this season, his addition is a boost to Yates because of the Menards sponsorship he brings to a team that's trying to rebuild itself into one of NASCAR's top organizations. Yates struggled through several lean years, the defection of Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler, and finally team owner Robert Yates' retirement last season.

He turned the team over to his son, Doug, who has worked closely with Roush Fenway to rebound.