MOORESVILLE – Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never second guessed his decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the 2007 season, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had some anxiety since announcing that decision.
“The hard part for me was being in limbo, not having a home, not knowing what my future was,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It was really uncharted territory for me.”
That officially ended Wednesday, when Earnhardt Jr. announced a five-year agreement to drive for Hendrick Motorsports beginning with the 2008 season.
“I wanted to findthe team that was right for me as a person and where I could compete for championships,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “As I sit here today, I could say with complete honesty that I have found and accomplished that goal.
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“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 him since childhood. He competes with integrity, and most importantly, he wins races.”
With that, Earnhardt Jr. introduced Rick Hendrick, whose drivers have amassed six championships and 159 race victories since 1984. This year, Hendrick’s four drivers have won 10 of 14 points races, with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson winning four each and Casey Mears and Kyle Busch each winning once.
Busch will leave the Hendrick team at season’s end, vacating the No. 5 Chevrolet. But no decision has been made on what car number Earnhardt Jr. will use, pending decisions about sponsorship and other issues.
Earnhardt Jr. said he’s leaving DEI, the team his late father founded, primarily because of his fractured relationship with his stepmother, Teresa, who now runs DEI.
“She's not evil,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We just don't get along. We don't see eye to eye. That's just the way it is.” There is another kinship, rooted in tragedy, between Earnhardt Jr. and the man he’ll drive for starting next season. Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Sr. were friends as well as racing rivals. Earnhardt Sr. drove a car owned by Hendrick and Robert Gee, who is Earnhardt Jr.’s grandfather on his mother’s side, to a win in a Busch Series race at Charlotte in 1983.
Earnhardt Jr. and Ricky Hendrick, Hendrick’s son, were also pals who used to daydream about Earnhardt driving for the younger Hendrick some day.
But Earnhardt was killed in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, and Ricky Hendrick died in the crash of a Hendrick team plane near Martinsville in October 2004. That left large holes in the lives of the two men who announced their deal Wednesday.
“I think we offer something that both of us are missing a little bit,” Hendrick said. “It's not that he's looking for me to be his dad or I'm looking for him to be my son. But we have a common bond that we both lost somebody. Something’s there.”
Earnhardt Jr. said he talked to car owners Joe Gibbs and Richard Childress about driving for their teams, too, and that it was difficult to turn either of them down. But ultimately, he felt most comfortable with Hendrick.
“I've known Rick forever,” said Earnhardt Jr., who said he has turned to Hendrick often for advice since his father’s death. “He's always been the same. I never feel like I have to guess with him. He doesn't have any motives. He makes a lot of money on selling cars and he races because he likes to win. He doesn't need me to come drive for him to make him a bunch of money.
“My dad was just amazing to me, and Rick is on that level. They're both sort of the same magnitude. My dad was my dad and I'm sure Rick feels the same way about Ricky. (But) we both can feel each other's loss and feel some compassion for each other.”