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
“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
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
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
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
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
The author can be contacted
to discuss this article