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Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Dale Jr. gets a boss who cares -- and equipment worthy of a championship

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't sign with Hendrick Motorsports because it gives him the best chance to win a championship.

He knows people will expect him to win a Nextel Cup title now. No excuses.

Earnhardt's reason for signing with Hendrick goes much deeper than winning races. In the end, he went with the man he saw as a father figure in his life.

Since his father's death six years ago, no one, including Richard Childress, has filled that void better than Rick Hendrick.

When it came time to sign on the dotted line, Earnhardt went with the best team in NASCAR. That wasn't the deciding factor. Earnhardt wanted to race for the man he respected the most.

"I know my dad would trust Rick," Earnhardt said. "They had great respect for each other. I think he would appreciate what Rick is trying to do for me."

Signing with Hendrick Motorsports gives Earnhardt what he felt he didn't have at Dale Earnhardt Inc. since his father's death -- a boss who cares more about him as a person than a driver.

It also gives him the best equipment in the sport and a realistic shot at winning a championship, but that's not why Earnhardt left DEI.

"It wasn't ever a competition issue at DEI," Earnhardt said Wednesday. "I had all the confidence in the world I could win in those cars."

What he didn't have was the personal support he needed and wanted. That wasn't going to happen as long as his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, was running the show.

I know my dad would trust Rick. They had great respect for each other. I think he would appreciate what Rick is trying to do for me.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Many Earnhardt fans think it was Childress who became Junior's sounding board after his dad died at Daytona. They're wrong. It was Hendrick.

The old-school Earnhardt fans wanted him to sign with Childress to try to bring back the past at the place where his father won six of his seven championships.

They see Hendrick, and especially new teammate Jeff Gordon, as the enemy. But Junior never felt that way. And neither did his father.

Despite what the fans think, Dale Sr. respected Gordon and admired his talent. They wanted to beat each other, but there was no bad blood between them.

That concept passed down to Dale Jr. What most people don't know of is the close relationship over the years between the Earnhardt family and the Hendrick family.

Junior talked about how his grandfather built cars for Rick Hendrick and helped him get started in racing.

But the meaningful relationship between Hendrick and Junior started after Dale Sr. died in 2001.

"Rick was always willing to advise me on things," Earnhardt said. "All he cared about was my well-being and me being happy."

When Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, Junior's sister and business manager, was hospitalized earlier this year for surgery to remove a cyst, Hendrick called Junior.

Dale Earnhardt Jr, right, and Rick Hendrick
Dale Earnhardt Jr., right, on Rick Hendrick: "Rick was always willing to advise me on things. All he cared about was my well-being and me being happy."

"Rick wanted to make sure Kelley was receiving the best possible care," Earnhardt said. "Having been through an illness himself [overcoming leukemia] he really understood how we felt."

Through good times and bad, Hendrick has been there for Earnhardt. When it became clear that Kyle Busch was leaving the Hendrick stable, the decision was obvious for Earnhardt.

He was going to work for the man he felt truly cared about him and his family.

Maybe that's why Earnhardt said he doesn't feel pressure to live up to the expectations people will have for him on NASCAR's top team.

"I'm the one who feels the pressure," Hendrick said. "I want to get him where he wants to go. I will do everything in my power to make that happen."

The first time Hendrick said that to Junior was 17 years ago. They were at a dirt track in Topeka, Kan. Hendrick had Junior sign a secret contract with him on a napkin. Junior was 15.

It was a joke at the time: "I was afraid of your daddy," Hendrick told Junior.

The contract talk came up again a few years later. This time, the topic was raised by Ricky Hendrick, Rick's son. Ricky and Junior were friends.

"Ricky told me one day he planned to sign Junior to a deal," Hendrick said. "I said, 'Yeah, right.' But he meant it."

Ricky died in a team plane crash heading to a race at Martinsville, Va., in 2004. When Earnhardt signed the deal this week, Rick remembered what Ricky said.

"Signing Junior was Ricky's goal,'' Hendrick said. "I didn't think it would ever come to pass, so to see this happen is very special for me."

Hendrick lost a son; Earnhardt lost his father. This deal may help both of them fill that void.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.