(Earnhardt will remain in the No. 88 entry through the 2017 Sprint Cup Series season)
By Pete Pistone
Dale Earnhardt Jr. staying at Hendrick Motorsports probably doesn’t qualify as breaking news but rather in the "what took so long?" category.
Discussions about Junior and Rick Hendrick remaining together were in the garage area as far back as the beginning of summer and it was only a matter of time before the paperwork was finished to keep Earnhardt in the No. 88 for the next five years.
Unlike Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer, who have both been in or are currently involved contract negotiations for their Sprint Cup futures, Earnhardt never seemed bothered by the details of his employment future or where things might lead.
“They're obviously one of the best places in the garage — if not THE best team in the garage to be with — and I wouldn't want to be anyplace else,” Earnhardt said in July. “No way.”
Earnhardt never questioned whether it would get done or not but was anxious to have things finalized if only to alleviate any unnecessary pressure as he continues to try and lock down a Chase spot.
“I just want to get it done before we get into the offseason,” Earnhardt said. “I have another year to go, but I was sitting there and seeing how Carl (Edwards) and those guys — seeing how much attention it draws to Carl and those guys — and me, when I was in my last contract year.
“I was like, ‘Hey, Rick, let's knock this out and we won't have to worry about it next year. You just tell me what you want to do. If you want to keep me as your driver, I'm happy to stay. I'm really happy where I'm at and if that's the way you feel, let's go ahead and do it. Why wait until next year? 'Cause the press wants to know what's going on and we won't have to worry about that.'”
Even Hendrick was pleased at how well things went and that the two sides were able to formalize what both had hoped for in relatively easy terms.
“We’re excited to have everything formalized and announced,” said Hendrick. “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.’’
Thursday’s announcement that Earnhardt will stay with Hendrick for the next five years now eliminates any speculation and allows the team to focus on the matter at hand – finally ending his now more than three-year winless drought and finding his way back to the NASCAR playoffs.
Both of those goals seem to be within Earnhardt’s reach considering the way his season has gone and the turnaround in performance from his previous campaigns at Hendrick, which for of the 2008 season’s first half have been more than disappointing.
But the combination of crew chief Steve Letarte and Earnhardt has proven to be a good one and although performance has somewhat tapered off in recent weeks the decision by Hendrick to pair the two was one of his wisest.
They may be polar opposites from a public perception – the quiet and soft-spoken Earnhardt with Letarte’s outgoing personality and mile-a-minute mouth – but the duo is on the absolute same page in preparation and execution.
Earnhardt hasn’t had this kind of communication, or performance for that matter, since he was teamed up with Tony Eury Jr. and Sr. and maybe more than anything that comfort level is translating to better results on the racetrack.
Make no mistake about it, even in this tightly wound financial atmosphere of today’s NASCAR Earnhardt could choose any team in the area to join. He’s one of the few drivers left in the sport that can attract a sponsor in a heartbeat and there isn’t one organization out there that wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to bring him on board whether it had an open seat or not.
But staying right where he’s been for nearly four years was the right decision for Earnhardt and locking him down until 2017 a brilliant move for Hendrick.
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