Mike Neff · Wednesday June 13, 2007
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. held a press conference in the cavernous race shop that bears his name today. He had the eyes of the racing world on him as the announced his future in the sport. Confident and secure, he paused, stood up, and peeled away the black curtain standing behind him.
In a split second, his future was revealed…right between the lines of the white background that read “Hendrick Motorsports.”
Junior’s status as the uncoronated king of NASCAR was complete.
The power of NASCAR’s former free agent extraordinaire was evident in the fact that the most powerful owner in the sport, and his new boss, came to his race shop for the press conference. But don’t get power confused with ego; the ironic thing about this monumental decision that the entire sport has been waiting to hear is that Junior’s decision came down to friendship. All other things being equal, friendship is the tie that binds, and the friendship that Earnhardt had with Rick Hendrick is what cemented a difficult decision as to where he would spend his racing future.
“I don’t feel like I’m working for a better guy,” said Junior, smiling with a sense of relief this was all over. “Rick’s got a great building and a great operation, (but) I think Rick and I’s relationship was what made the difference for me.”
“Obviously, he’s committed to winning and that is what it’s all about for him.”
Apparently, the groundwork for this agreement was laid 17 years ago in Kansas before an ARCA race. In a story that has not been shared much in the public, Earnhardt and Hendrick shared a meeting that was actually the original contract signing between the parties.
“I had been fortunate enough to be invited on a trip with Kenny Schrader around the Midwest to run some dirt tracks,” Junior explained. “And we get to Topeka and that’s the first time I had ever met Rick, and introduced he said, ‘Have you got a contract to drive for anybody.’ I wasn’t even racing, you know…I wasn’t even close. I thought it was a joke and he wrote down on a napkin, wrote a contract down on a napkin and I signed it. We were joking around. Obviously he’s a pretty smart businessman, and I figured even if it was a joke - I’d better sign it because it might come in handy one day.”
Well, Hendrick wasn’t joking. Over the years, Hendrick held onto the contract but never enforced it out of fear of the response from Junior’s dad, the great Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Then, in 2002, Ricky Hendrick was racing and preparing to take over the No. 25 team at HMS when he was spending some time with Earnhardt, Jr. at a Busch race. After talking with the younger Earnhardt, he informed his father that he was going to sign Earnhardt, Jr. to a contract to drive for Hendrick some day. The elder Hendrick wished his son well and didn't really think anything more of it. However, that seed was planted in the mind of Junior and, when he announced his intention to leave DEI, it was the impetus for him contacting the elder Hendrick.
As much as the motivation for Junior to leave D.E.I. was the desire to win and compete for a championship, it’s clear after attending this conference that the final decision on where to end up was based more on his friendship with the Hendrick family. Earnhardt acknowledged that every organization that he visited with during his job search had the same potential; the resources were in place to be successful, and the ability to hire the right people and provide the right equipment was consistent amongst all the top teams. In the end, Junior felt like he could be competitive wherever he ended up, so there had to be a differentiating factor that swayed his final decision. Well, that factor was the longstanding relationship that Junior had with Hendrick, a relationship of a man who lost his son paired with a son who’s lost his father.
So, how did all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place? It appears Kyle Busch’s All-Star Race snafu may have played a role in the final decision. Hendrick was in a situation around the time of the Charlotte race where he was negotiating with Kyle Busch for an extension of his current contract; during those negotiations it became apparent that other organizations were courting Busch and gauging his interest in moving on at the end of his current deal. Because of that, it appears as though the numbers that Busch was asking for were more than Hendrick was really willing to part with; and then, at the height of it all, Busch came up with a major public relations snafu. The parties came to a mutual agreement, with respect on both sides, that it was in their best interests to part ways. When that decision was reached, Busch asked that he be allowed to get out of his contract after the 2007 season. With that knowledge in hand, Hendrick was freed up to push forward on the negotiations with Earnhardt and ultimately resulted in the sport’s most popular driver being signed by the sport’s most dominant organization.
That organization should expect to get more dominant in 2008 and beyond with Junior as a part of their stable. Hendrick noted during the press conference that he is flattered being compared to the New York Yankees. The Yankees, an organization that liberally spends money to attempt to purchase championships, will stop at nothing to bring in the best talent to try and accomplish that goal. That makes them loathed by many, but without a doubt, they continue to be the glamour franchise in professional baseball. Hendrick now has that moniker in Cup racing. They will begin next year with the two most popular drivers in the sport signed to longterm deals, and may have accomplished one of the most impressive seasons in modern-era history by that point; Hendrick has 10 wins in 14 races so far in ’07.
But with popularity comes expectation. Hendrick also admitted during the press conference that he is already feeling the pressure of having to deliver for Earnhardt, Jr. The most rabid fan base in the sport is expecting to see Junior succeed early and often now that he is going to be with the premier team in the series.
“Again, it’s not just professional; it’s personal,” explained Hendrick about the developing work relationship. “But from the professional side, I feel the pressure. I felt it when I drove in here today, and I know I’m going to feel it when we show up in Daytona, and I’m committed to do everything I can to make the entire relationship the best it can be for he and his family.”
Should Hendrick hold up his end of the bargain, the rewards could be unprecedented for a friendship that produced the biggest blockbuster in racing free agent history.
Some Other Things To Note:
Compiled By Mike Neff, Tom Bowles, Kim DeHaven, And FS Staff
Sponsorship : Budweiser has yet to commit to either Hendrick Motorsports or Dale Earnhardt, Inc., making an announcement after the press conference they are exploring their options. One rumor even has the company talking to Dodge’s Kasey Kahne.
Contract : The deal is for five years, from 2008-2012. It was made clear Junior will not drive for Hendrick before the beginning of the ’08 season, fulfilling his obligations to D.E.I. through the end of this year.
Number : Hendrick said he would be open to discussing a specific number swap with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., but right now it’s a question of whether Junior will drive the No. 5 or No. 25 car. With the No. 5 being Ricky Hendrick’s old car number, the number swap that’s more likely to happen is the No. 25 for the No. 8…if Dale Earnhardt, Inc. will be open to such a suggestion at all.
Kyle Busch : Busch put out a statement about his release from Hendrick Motorsports following the season, but where he will end up for 2008 is unclear. Rumors swirled he will immediately go to D.E.I. in an unprecedented driver swap, but nothing is confirmed as of yet. Several other organizations are also interested in the 22-year-old talent, including Ginn Racing.
_Editor’s Note : For additional commentary and analysis on the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to Hendrick announcement, please click here for Amy Henderson’s take, as well as here for some intriguing fan reactions and writer commentary by Matt Taliaferro.
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