Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not drive for Hendrick Motorsports after this season, but team owner Rick Hendrick says nothing is going to change between the two.
“We’ve talked about it a lot. We’ve made a commitment to each other that we’re not going to let this end,” Hendrick said ahead of Homestead-Miami weekend. “We’re going to do even more things together. We’re partners in JR Motorsports. We’re partners in car dealerships.
“We both love to go down to Florida and fish. I want to see him as a dad and watch his family grow. Our relationship is so much more than him just driving the car. He’s a special person and friend.”
Rick’s late son Ricky always told his dad that Earnhardt, a close friend of his, would drive for the company one day. As a teenager, Earnhardt signed a contract with Hendrick on a napkin.
Looking back, Rick Hendrick never thought it would be something that would come to fruition. Signing Earnhardt when he decided to leave his family operation at Dale Earnhardt Inc. was like fulfilling what Ricky had believed in and wanted to see happen.
Earnhardt has raced for Hendrick since 2008.
“After knowing Dale and [sister] Kelley [Earnhardt Miller] for so long, it’s kind of felt like a family affair,” said Hendrick. “I want to be someone Dale can talk to and confide in. In a way, I think we’ve filled the void for each other. No one will ever replace my son and no one will ever replace his dad, but we share a special bond.
“I’ve just loved watching him grow up and mature, from hanging out with his posse [friends] to getting married and now starting a family with Amy.”
Being the car owner of the sport’s most popular driver isn’t easy. Hendrick has never shied away from that. There is a pressure that comes with the expectations from Earnhardt’s legion of fans.
In his 10 seasons at Hendrick, Earnhardt has enjoyed the ups and downs of racing. He’s won nine races, including his second Daytona 500 in 2014, but only made the playoffs six times. There have been crew chief changes and even swapping of the shops on the Hendrick campus to put the No. 88 team in the same building as champion Jimmie Johnson.
At the start of his final weekend, Earnhardt credited Hendrick and his teammates for turning him into the person he is today. Being at the championship-winning organization has helped him grow and held him accountable for his performance.
Hendrick looks back on their partnership fondly.
“To win the very first race he ran [the 2008 Budweiser Shootout, pictured above] was unbelievable. There was a lot of hype going into that season, so to win right out of the gate was exciting and took some pressure off,” Earnhardt said. “The Daytona 500 [in Daytona] was so special. Any time you can be with Dale in victory lane at Daytona, it carries a lot of meaning.
“I think all the way back to his very first test with us at Atlanta [in 2007] when he drove our car with City Chevrolet on the hood and All-Star Racing on the side. That’s when we were like, ‘Okay, this is really happening.’ I kept the car. That’s how much it meant it meant to me.”