CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NASCAR's most popular driver will stay with the most dominant race team at least through 2017.
Hendrick Motorsports on Thursday announced a five-year contract extension with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend trying to clinch his first berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in three years.
"It's great to have it all wrapped up so quickly and far in advance," said Earnhardt, who had another year left on the original contract that began in 2008.
"Rick and I were on the same page from the first time we talked about it, so there wasn't any sense in waiting. There were never any questions or hesitations from either of us. It was just, 'Yeah, let's do it.'"
Earnhardt left Dale Earnhardt Inc., his late father's race team, at the end of the 2007 season to join car owner Rick Hendrick. Earnhardt's courtship was the most frenzied free agency in NASCAR history, and he chose the most dominant team in the Sprint Cup Series.
The pressure has been on Hendrick since to make Earnhardt a champion -- a goal they have failed to reach through the first three seasons. Earnhardt has won just one race since leaving DEI, at Michigan in 2008, and he goes into Sunday night's race at Atlanta stuck in a 117-race winless streak.
But after missing the Chase the last two seasons, he's poised to get back into the 12-driver field this year. Currently ranked ninth in the standings, Earnhardt can clinch a berth in the field if he widens his margin to 49 points over the 11th-place driver on Sunday night.
He's currently 39 points ahead of 11th-place driver Brad Keselowski.
Earnhardt talked last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway about the importance of making the Chase so he can avoid another year of harsh criticism. But he insisted simply making the 10-race championship series isn't enough.
"On a personal level, I don't really know how much it matters to me. Making the Chase is just an afterthought," Earnhardt said at Bristol. "I really want to win a championship. Making the Chase is great and all, but as a person, you want to be a champion. Making the Chase doesn't really make you feel better at the end of the season. If you don't win the championship, you're really disappointed."
Earnhardt's career-best finish in the Sprint Cup standings was third in 2003. Under the Chase format, he finished fifth in 2004 and 2006, but has not made the field since 2008, his first season with Hendrick.
"I'm really happy at Hendrick Motorsports and enjoy working with everyone here," he said. "The team's been very competitive this season, and we're all excited about the direction of things. I want to make sure we're giving our fans something to cheer about for a long time."
Hendrick said he's glad to have a deal done and is eager to get Earnhardt back to Victory Lane.
"Junior and I had a handshake agreement months ago, and we let other people work out the finer points from there. It was as simple and smooth as it gets," Hendrick said. "My feelings haven't changed since the day he first signed with us. I'm committed as ever to putting him in the best possible situation to be successful and compete for wins and championships."