Earnhardt Jr. to join Hendrick Motorsports after 2007 season

Jun 13, 2007 - 7:01 PM By Bruce Martin PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor

MOORESVILLE, North Carolina (Ticker) -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has found a new home at Hendrick Motorsports, and the NASCAR superstar believes his late father would approve of the move.

Earnhardt, 32, made the highly anticipated announcement Wednesday at a news conference from the headquarters of JR Motorsports, his Busch Series team.

"I know my dad would trust Rick Hendrick," Earnhardt said. "They had a great amount of respect for each other, and I know dad would appreciate what Rick is trying to do - his approach for my sister and family.

"I know dad would appreciate that. He'd probably be a little jealous."

Earnhardt signed a five-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports and will move over to the team at the end of this season. He will join fellow superstars Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson along with Casey Mears, who scored his first Cup victory in last month's Coca-Cola 600.

It was the latest chapter in the soap opera involving Earnhardt, who left the Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) team that was started by his father before he was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt Jr. left DEI last month when he was unable to wrest majority ownership away from his stepmother, Teresa. Once Earnhardt announced he was leaving, speculation focused on three teams Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

When it came time to make the decision, Earnhardt believed Hendrick offered him the best chance to win races and a Nextel Cup championship.

"Rick teams win a lot of races," Earnhardt said. "This wasn't necessarily a competition issue or question with me at DEI. I have all the confidence in the world with those cars and my ability to drive them well. But Rick's cars win a lot of races."

Although Hendrick did not reveal which of his cars Earnhardt would drive, he did confirm that his newest star driver will replace Kyle Busch, a young talent of his own who some believe could be better than Earnhardt.

"Kyle Busch and I had been negotiating an extension on his contract since last year, and those conversations were moving along and it became obvious to me other people were talking to him at the time," Hendrick said. "He is an unbelievable talent. We started talking at the Charlotte race to get things finished up, but it became obvious to both of us that maybe a fresh start would be good for both of us."

The combination of Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson gives Hendrick Motorsports three of the biggest names in NASCAR, which some believe may not be good for the sport as a whole.

Hendrick has become NASCAR's version of the New York Yankees by signing all of the big names from the sport and putting them on one team.

"They are going to race each other," Hendrick said. "We've seen it with our cars this year with Jimmie and Jeff at Martinsville. When you have multi-car teams, my job is to get the best talent out there. I want to protect the brand and protect Junior's image. Once it gets on the race track, it's everybody for themselves."

Gordon, Johnson, Mears and Busch have combined to win 10 of the first 14 races on the circuit this season, easily making Hendrick Motorsports the most dominant team in the series.

"We've been very fortunate this year," Hendrick said. "I have to check the horseshoe to make sure it hasn't fallen out. We're on a roll right now, and I should be honored I'm compared to the Yankees. We're working hard and working together and let each driver control his way."

But the addition of Earnhardt will bring Hendrick Motorsports unparalleled success off the track - if not on it.

Although his popularity dwarfs his achievements, Earnhardt has widespread appeal reaching far beyond NASCAR's die-hard fans. Merchandise bearing his name, likeness and familiar No. 8 accounted for nearly 25 percent of all NASCAR driver-licensed products.

The move to Hendrick could also mean a new sponsor for Earnhardt, who has enjoyed a successful sponsorship with Budweiser since joining the series full-time in 2000.

"Anheuser-Busch has enjoyed a remarkable relationship with Dale Earnhardt Jr. since our sponsorship commenced back in 1999," Anheuser-Busch vice president Tony Ponturo said. "Dale Jr. is an excellent ambassador for the sport and our company, and we look forward to exploring options with Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports to continue Budweiser's relationship with him as he enters this new stage of his racing career."

It has not been determined who Earnhardt's sponsor will be next season, but Hendrick indicated he already has existing commitments in place with all of his sponsors. Earnhardt also will have a different car number instead of No. 8, which he has had his entire career.

If Earnhardt has a new sponsor next season, it will be an adjustment for his huge legion of fans. What may be even more difficult for them to accept is Earnhardt being teammates with Gordon.

"Jeff has always been a good friend of mine. My dad helped him in the sport, and he has told me the last few years he has helped repay that favor what my dad did for him," Earnhardt said. "I can't really speak for Jeff but we do have a personal competition. I like to out-run Jeff. He is fun to race with, and when you beat him it's a good feeling."

Earnhardt currently is mired in a winless drought and has not visited Victory Lane since winning at Richmond in May 2006, a span of 40 consecutive races without a checkered flag. He currently is 14th in the standings and has only one top-five finish this season.

Earnhardt pointed out that if the moves means more victories, then his fans will be happy about the switch.

"I think the fans make up their own minds and somehow will come to terms with whatever decision we have made," Earnhardt said. "Once we get on the track and have some success, we'll be able to get them what they deserve.

"Over the years, I feel like I haven't given them what they deserve. I'm making decisions to make that happen."

But the Earnhardt brand is undeniable, which is why he was in such high demand once he announced he was leaving DEI.

"All of our drivers are a little different," Hendrick said. "Jeff, Jimmie and Casey are friends of Dale's. It's important to me and Junior to protect his brand and to grow it. It's a situation where we want to give him the best equipment we can."

Earnhardt enjoyed his best season in 2003, when he registered 13 top-five finishes en route to placing third in the series standings. He recorded a career-high six victories the following campaign, including a landmark win in the Daytona 500.

In parts of nine seasons with DEI, Earnhardt has run in 269 races, capturing 17 career victories and 70 top-five finishes.

The 22-year-old Busch won the 2005 Rookie of the Year award and qualified for the Chase last season. He captured his fourth career victory at Bristol in March and currently is 10th in the standings.

"We had been working on a contract extension for me to remain at Hendrick Motorsports, but after prolonged negotiations, we mutually agreed that a fresh start was in order," Busch said Wednesday. "I have been granted a release after the 2007 season. I have tremendous respect for Mr. Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports. It's where I grew up, and I have a lot of great memories."

The talented but controversial Busch admitted he is looking forward to a fresh start elsewhere but vowed to finish strong with Hendrick Motorsports.

"I kind of feel like I'm graduating," he said. "I'm excited about my future, and I know a lot of opportunities await because of what everyone at Hendrick did for me on the track and off.

"I still have a job to do this year and will give it my all just as I've always done to make sure we put the No. 5 car in Victory Lane a few more times before the year is out."

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