NASCAR Race Weekend Central

It’s Official: Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Drive No. 88 Car for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008

We already knew the driver. We already knew the team. All we needed to find out was the number and sponsor for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver next season.

Well, turns out we already knew that, too.

After the cat was let out of the bag last week, Hendrick Motorsports made it official at a press conference Wednesday afternoon in Dallas: Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be driving a No. 88 Chevrolet for them in 2008. Primary sponsorship will come from both PepsiCo – through their Mountain Dew and AMP Energy drinks – as well as the National Guard. In the meantime, Casey Mears will move to the No. 5 car with sponsorship from Kellogg’s and CARQUEST, while the No. 25 will no longer be used by Hendrick Motorsports. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

On the sponsorship side, it was a landmark opportunity for Mountain Dew, which returns as a full-time NASCAR sponsor for the first time since 1982. PepsiCo CEO Dawn Hudson was on hand for the announcement, and was forthright about the excitement the company has towards increasing their support of the series.

“We really have a great history with NASCAR, and with Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports, so it’s really exciting to extend that and work with Dale Jr.” she said during the press conference. “I can already tell you the ideas that Dale Jr. has, that our marketing people have, that our bottlers have, are outstanding. We’re going to put that together and do some things we’ve done in the past, but we’re going to do some new things. I think that is going to be exciting.”

“I’ve been a big fan of Mountain Dew for a very long time,” Junior said. “They have a great history, and have been a sponsor in motorsports for nearly 50 years, so it sounded like a great opportunity and a great fit for me.”

“I’ve had several chances over the past several years to be involved in the military, and the National Guard also had a relationship with Rick… so that was a great fit, too. I was at the right place at the right time.”

Lieutenant General Clyde Vaughn from the National Guard echoed the excitement and importance for Dale Jr. to be a part of their program in 2008.

“The recruiting aspect for us, we have to recruit some 70,000 Army Guard soldiers a year,” he explained. “This is big business. It just so happens that the strong point of recruiting the force happens to be exactly where the NASCAR Nation is.”

“We put all that together, and we think about the most popular driver, you don’t have to be real smart to figure this out (how it could work). But we’re proud to be on this team and we’re proud about the attention it draws to our organization, an institution that’s 370 years old, older than the nation.”

Then, there’s that little issue of a number. Having secured the rights through negotiations with Robert Yates Racing, Dale Jr. will continue the legacy of his grandfather, Ralph, by having not one but two 8s emblazoned on the side of his Budweiser Chevrolet. But ironically, it was a movement to obtain one of Yates’s old numbers – the No. 28 – that really got things moving in earnest.

“We called Robert to talk to him about us running the No. 28,” said Junior concerning the acquisition. “He showed some interest in maybe allowing us to just have No. 88. So that was really sort of a stroke of luck, in my opinion. I was very fortunate that Kelley was smart enough to make that call. She earned her paycheck that day.”

Indeed, Earnhardt’s sister Kelley Earnhardt Elledge was once again given extensive credit throughout the press conference for helping arrange all sorts of details, three months after she had brought the Hendrick-Earnhardt relationship together in the first place. But in the end, Junior said acquiring the number came down to fan support.

“I was really trying to do the best I could to do good by my fans because that was very important for them,” he explained. “That was one of the more popular questions, is would it have an 8 in it? What’s the number? What’s the number? So I think they can be twice as happy about the situation.”

“It’s got to be sort of a relief for them and they got to be pretty happy about it. I know I’ve been really excited to make this announcement, not only with the sponsors but the number as well. So this is a great, great day for me.”

The No. 88 AMP/Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet will make its on-track debut at the 2008 Daytona 500.

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