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Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Earnhardt to join Gordon, Johnson in Hendrick stable

By David Newton
ESPN.com

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s rock star image doesn't fit the corporate white shirt and black pants look that is synonymous with Hendrick Motorsports, but the organization's reputation for winning titles fit his.

That and a family connection that in some ways is stronger than what he's leaving at the company his father built.

Earnhardt announced on Wednesday he has signed a five-year deal to begin driving for the sport's most dominant team beginning in 2008.

NASCAR's most popular drive will replace Kyle Busch, who has been given a release from the final year [2008] of his contract to pursue other opportunities that include replacing Earnhardt at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Terms of the deal were not revealed, but team owner Rick Hendrick said Earnhardt will not be the highest paid driver in his remaining stable of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears.

Hendrick also said he's not going to force Earnhardt to change his image, even though Earnhardt jokingly said he'd been told his normal attire of blue jeans and t-shirts might have to be altered.

"I'm flattered he said something,'' Hendrick said with a smile. "The rest of them don't even ask me. They just do it. It's important for Dale to be Dale. His image is his image. I don't want to change that at all.''

Image is such a factor that the possibility of Earnhardt driving a red No. 8 with Budwesier as the primary sponsor hasn't been rule out. But for that to happen DEI would have to release the number and Hendrick has sponsorship commitments with Carquest, Kellogg's, National Guard and GMAC that he must fulfill.

"It's kind of funny,'' Hendrick said. "My son [the late Ricky Hendrick] used to get on him for wearing his hat backwards, and Dale walked up to me one day and put my hat on backwards and we all took a picture.

"It's important to let him be himself.''

The picture was one of many stories during the one-hour press conference at JR Motorsports that reminded this deal was as much about family and relationships as it was about winning.

There was the story about how Ricky, one of 10 victims when an HMS plane crashed on the way to Martinsville Speedway in 2004, once told his father that Earnhardt would drive for the company one day.

There was the story about how 16 years ago, before Earnhardt was racing, he signed a paper napkin contract agreeing to drive for Hendrick.

There was the story about how Earnhardt's father, a seven-time Cup champion, in 1983 gave Hendrick his first victory at a Busch Series race in Charlotte.

There were the numerous stories about Earnhardt's grandfather, Robert Gee, who not only grew up in the same town of South Hill, Va., as Hendrick but was one of the original employees at HMS as a bodyman.

"I always felt sad for my mother because as I became a racecar driver, her part of my existence never got any credit,'' Earnhardt said of his mother, Brenda Jackson.

"Robert Gee Sr. & Robert Gee Jr. and Jimmy Gee that works here now, that half of my family always took a back seat to my dad and his half of the family when it came to my success and how I made it and what made me up as a person and what I was about.''

The family atmosphere Hendrick offers had Earnhardt smiling in ways he hasn't since his father was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, leaving him to deal with a stepmother with which he's never had a good relationship.

But the biggest reason for his smile was Hendrick, a father figure and confidante throughout this process and before.

"I've always daydreamed about driving for Rick since I started to drive racecars,'' said Earnhardt, wearing blue jeans and a grey dress shirt. "I guess if I had my choice in a perfect world, he was kind of always in the lead.''

Earnhardt said HMS was his first choice when he announced last month he was leaving DEI, but that he didn't think that was an option because Hendrick had a full stable of drivers.

He also wanted to listen to other top Chevrolet owners such as Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs.

"They really wanted to talk to me and I wanted to give them that opportunity to get across the table what they wanted to,'' Earnhardt said. "I felt like my mind could be changed, or I wouldn't have sat down with them.''

Initial talks with Hendrick were about forming a satellite team with HMS support, which Earnhardt said was a last resort. It wasn't until two weeks ago, when it became clear that negotiations with Busch weren't going well, that HMS became a major factor again.

"Every time my contract came up [Hendrick] came to me and never once was there a motive of trying to get me to drive for him,'' Earnhardt said.

"He came to me and said, 'I know you and your sister are the only two you have. If you need lawyers, if you need any kind of help, whatever to get the deal you want, let me know and I can send some people over and help you and look at your stuff. ''

But when it became apparent Busch was considering options with other teams, Hendrick began focusing on Earnhardt, which would open his already thriving organizations to markets he's never been.

"I haven't slept well in three weeks,'' Hendrick said.

He's sure there will be more sleepless nights if he can't deliver Earnhardt the championship he promised.

"He made the decision to come with us based on our ability to give him what he needs to reach those goals,'' Hendrick said. "So that's the competitive side of me that adds pressure, because I want to deliver what he's expecting.

"And because of the magnitude of his space and position in the sport, with his fan base and so forth, the feeling is that everyone is going to anticipate it."

Earnhardt's priority when he decided to leave DEI was an organization capable of helping him win a title.

He chose an organization that has won six since Gordon captured the first of his four titles in 1995 and Johnson walked away with the 2006 championship.

He chose an organization that has won 10 of 14 races this season, including last week's rain-shortened victory by points leader Gordon at Pocono.

"I've been through this before where if Jimmie wins Jeff's fans say I don't give him as good of equipment,'' Hendrick said. "I'm sure in this situation if he's not winning it's my fault.

"If he's winning it's because of his talent. If he's not it's because of my not giving him good stuff. That's the way the fans will look at it.''

Questioned whether he was creating a potential disaster with so many stars, Hendrick without hesitating said there was absolutely no concern this could ruin arguably the best chemistry in Cup.

Hendrick also said the deal had the blessing of NASCAR chairman Brian France and president Mike Helton.

"In a way, I guess they want him taken care of,'' Hendrick said. "And they know me well enough to know that I'm going to take care of him. … What I'm trying to say is NASCAR needs Junior to be successful and they need him to be happy.

"I hope you guys see today, he's pretty happy.''

But Earnhardt and Gordon as teammates will be an interesting mix. Although they are friends, Gordon has been the driver most Earnhardt fans love to hate going back to his rivalry with Earnhardt's dad.

Earnhardt said it actually will be nice being one of the faces of the organization instead of the face as he was at DEI.

"It's sort of like more people have to carry the load,'' he said. "I'm just looking forward to the newness to his deal, to the newness as far as everything when it comes to the teammates, employees, shops, the way the cars drive, the way business is done, the way everything is.

"Some things will be better. Some things will take some getting used to. But I like that challenge and I'm excited to have it happen.''

David Newton covers Nextel Cup racing for ESPN.com.