Saturday, May 21, 2011
Dale Earnhardt Jr. close to extension
By David Newton
CONCORD, N.C. -- Hendrick Motorsports is close to finalizing a multiyear extension with Dale Earnhardt Jr., team owner Rick Hendrick said Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Hendrick hopes to announce the deal within the next month. He would not give specifics, saying most of the major points are agreed on and the extension would keep NASCAR's most popular driver at HMS for another three to five years after the current five-year deal expires in 2012.
"We know we want to be together and we just want to get this over with," said Hendrick, who told ESPN.com last year he was working on the extension. "It shows I'm committed to him and he's committed to us."
Hendrick has been committed to making Earnhardt a champion since the driver left Dale Earnhardt Inc., after the 2007 season to join his organization. He made a major move during the offseason, moving Earnhardt into the same shop with five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and pairing him with Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon's long-time crew chief.
Asked about the extension following the preliminary to the All-Star race, Earnhardt said, "Whatever [Hendrick] says is probably true.''
"I'm excited to be where I am," Earnhardt continued. "From my heart, it's an amazing organization. There are some great, great people there. I've learned a lot being around there. It's made me a better person. We've still got a lot of things we would like to accomplish on the racetrack. If I get an opportunity to stick around I'm excited about that.
"We've just been talking about it. I don't think we'll have any trouble."
Earnhardt was fourth in points heading into Saturday's All-Star race.
"He and Stevie ... it's just that magic right now," Hendrick said. "They have confidence in each other and like each other. So much of this thing is confidence and getting the right guys to communicate. The team believes in him and he believes in them."
Hendrick said Earnhardt's decision to call a team meeting to apologize for a pit road violation that cost the team a top-10 finish following the recent Darlington race was another sign of a renewed dedication.
"There is a tremendous change," Hendrick said. "There's a tremendous confidence level. When he got all the crew together after the race and said, 'Hey, I made a mistake and I'm sorry,' I never saw Dale do that. He'd go to the coach."
Hendrick said from the outset the pressure was on him to make Earnhardt, who has said he would like to retire at HMS, a winner. He believes they're headed in the right direction.
"I took on a big challenge and felt like I failed," he said of making the crew chief change after Earnhardt missed the Chase the last two seasons. "It's amazing when you think all the equipment is the same. So what's the big difference? The big difference is communication and confidence.
"You can't just tell somebody that. They've got to feel it and believe it. So I'm looking for a great finish [to the season] and I just think they''e going to get better and better every week."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.