CONCORD, N.C. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt Inc. has merged its engine program with Richard Childress Racing, an alliance that likely will help DEI return to prominence.

DEI has been in a slow decline since Dale Earnhardt's 2001 death. Star driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving at the end of the season because he doesn't think he can win championships at DEI.

Stepmother Teresa Earnhardt disagreed, and the hope is that merging engine programs with RCR will strengthen the organization.

``This backs up what Teresa said last week _ her commitment is solid, and her No. 1 priority is to win championships,'' John Story, general manager of DEI, said Friday. ``This is the first of a few big things we are going to do to continue moving toward that goal of winning championships.''

The first collaborative engine is scheduled to be used at Daytona International Speedway in July.

The merger's similar to an agreement the elder Earnhardt once had with Childress and Andy Petree. The ``RAD'' partnership pooled resources from all three teams to build a program for restrictor plate races.

The partnership was successful, as the three teams spent several seasons with the most competitive cars at Daytona and Talladega.

With the new DEI-RCR agreement, the engine program will be housed in a separate facility from both race shops, and managers from both teams will oversee it.

The engines will be used for the six combined Cup teams that DEI and RCR have, the Busch programs for both organizations and Kevin Harvick's Busch team, too.

RCR currently has lease agreements with several teams, and all will use the motors produced from this venture.

Story said the merger was Teresa Earnhardt's idea and had been in the works since last season. Childress fielded cars for six of the elder Earnhardt's seven championships and has remained close with the family.

Childress said last week that he's interested in signing Earnhardt Jr., and it's not clear how this merger will affect that.