Earnhardt Jr. signs 5-year deal with Hendrick
by Pete McCole
June 13, 2007

Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR’s most sought-after free-agent has finally found a ride.

Ending weeks of wild speculation about his future, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced today he has signed to drive for the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports organization for the 2008 season.

Earnhardt, Jr. signed a five-year deal to replace Hendrick driver Kyle Busch, who will be released from his contract with the team at the end of the season.

“I wanted to take as much time as possible to find the right team – a team that was right for me as a person and where I could compete for championships,” said Earnhardt, Jr. “We talked with many teams, but one stood out above the rest, and it became apparent to me the man I wanted to drive for.

“I’ve known Rick Hendrick since childhood, he competes with integrity and he wins races. I feel like this decision will give me that opportunity and hopefully I can give my fans what they expect and deserve and have a whole lot of fun along the way.”

Earnhardt will join Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears, forming what might be the most impressive roster of driver ever assembled. Already, Hendrick drivers have won 10 of the 14 races so far this season, including five of the six Car of Tomorrow races. Gordon and Johnson have combined for 106 victories and five titles for the team.

The Earnhardt family has long had ties to the Hendrick organization. The late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. earned Rick Hendrick his first NASCAR victory, winning a Busch Series event in 1983 in a car that was co-owned by Hendrick and Robert Gee, Earnhardt, Jr.’s grandfather.

“This is a ‘wow' day, both as a personal and professional standpoint,” said Hendrick. “It’s an exciting time for us to be able to bring a talent like Junior into our camp. I can’t tell you how special this is to me, how thrilled I am, and how much pressure I feel to make sure that he’s going to win races.”

There was no word on whether Earnhardt’s longtime sponsor, Budweiser, would join him. Budweiser previously sponsored the Hendrick-owned no. 25 car from 1995 to 2000.

“We haven’t decided on any of that yet,” said Hendrick. “A lot of things can change before the end of the year, but the car number, the sponsor, the alignment, all that is something we're going to work on, but none of that is in place yet.”

Who Earnhardt might sign with had been the hottest topic in motorsports ever since Earnhardt announced May 10 he was leaving Dale Earnhardt, Inc. – a team founded by his late father, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., - at the conclusion of the 2008 season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt has repeatedly expressed his desire to win championships as well as stay in the Chevrolet stable, making the Hendrick organization – winners of six Nextel Cup championships as well as titles in the Busch and Craftsman Truck Series – a front-runner.

“I will cherish a championship on my mantle when it’s all said and done,” said Earnhardt, Jr. “I think I can live without it, obviously, but I’d be 90 or 95 percent on my goals that I set for myself personally throughout my career if I can’t gather that championship. I really do want it.”

“He made a decision to come with us based on our performance and our ability to give him what he needs to reach those goals,” said Hendrick. “That’s the competitive side of me that adds pressure that I want to deliver what we said we could deliver and what he’s expecting.

“It’s important to me and to Junior to protect his brand and grow it. We want to give him the best equipment we can. I’m committed to doing everything I can to make the entire relationship the best it can be for him and his family.”

The Hendrick rumor seemed a long shot, since the organization already had a full roster of four teams, the most allowed by NASCAR under a rule that takes effect in 2009. Team owner Rick Hendrick himself told the Associated Press in an interview last month that he would love to hire Earnhardt, but that there was “no room at the inn.”

But after Busch’s contract negotiations stalled, both he and Hendrick decided to go their separate ways.

“Kyle Busch and I have been negotiating on an extension to his contract since the end of last year,” said Hendrick. “It became pretty obvious that other people were talking to Kyle at the time, and we started talking around the (Coca-Cola 600) trying to get things finished up, and in those conversations it became pretty obvious that maybe a fresh start might be good for both of us.”

Busch himself may have added fuel to the Earnhardt/Hendrick rumor after leaving the track at a race earlier this year at Texas Motor Speedway following a crash involving Earnhardt.

Thinking the car was unrepairable, Busch left before the crew could finish repairs, and Earnhardt was asked to climb behind the wheel of the no. 5 to finish out the event.

At the time, when Earnhardt was asked if his short stint in the no. 5 was an audition of sorts, he called the idea “crazy”.

And now, as unbelievable or as stunning as it may be to Earnhardt’s fans, it’s reality.

Earnhardt’s signing with Hendrick is sure to draw the ire of the Earnhardt faithful, who have a long-standing hatred of Jeff Gordon. Gordon’s car was targeted by several dozen beer-throwing fans – many wielding cans with the Budweiser label – following his 76th career victory at Talladega, tying the win total of the late Earnhardt, Sr.

“I think that the fans will make up their own minds and somehow come to terms with whatever decision we’ve made,” said Earnhardt, Jr. “I feel like once we get on the racetrack and have some success, we’ll able to give them what they deserve. I’m trying to make those decisions not only for me but to make them happy.”

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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