MOORESVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is joining Hendrick Motorsports, hopefully moving one step closer to a championship that has eluded him while driving for his late father’s company.
Rick Hendrick said Earnhardt will replace Kyle Busch on his star-studded roster of drivers. The announcement Wednesday ended five weeks of recruiting for NASCAR’s most popular driver, who became a free agent May 10 when he said he would leave DEI at the end of this season.
His criteria for a new team included finding a place he could win championships, and Hendrick is the perfect fit. Hendrick has won six championships, and has 10 wins through 14 points races this season.
“It became apparent to me the man I wanted to drive for,” Earnhardt said at a news conference. “He competes with integrity and most importantly, he wins races ... So today, it is with great honor to introduce my new boss for 2008, Mr. Rick Hendrick.”
It was not immediately clear what number Earnhardt will drive, and who will sponsor the car. Since starting in NASCAR, Earnhardt has driven the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. It’s possible that Hendrick could trade Busch’s No. 5 to DEI for the No. 8, should he wind up signing with Earnhardt’s old team.
“We haven’t even began to work around that and see what the options are and opportunities are and that’s something we’ll work out down the road,” Earnhardt said.
Hendrick has longtime ties to Earnhardt’s family. He fielded a car in 1983 for Dale Earnhardt Sr., who drove it to a Busch Series win at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. That entry was co-owned by Robert Gee, who is Junior’s maternal grandfather.
Joining Hendrick’s stable could anger Earnhardt’s followers because it will team him with Jeff Gordon, a driver generally despised by his rabid fans. Following several of his recent wins, Earnhardt’s fans have thrown beer cans at Gordon, most notably after career win No. 76 — in April at Talladega Superspeedway. The win tied Gordon with the elder Earnhardt on NASCAR’s victory list.
“We do have a personal competition. If you want to call it a rivalry, fine,” Earnhardt said. “He’s fun to race with, and especially if you beat him, it’s a good feeling. ... We can both challenge each other to be better race car drivers.”
Earnhardt hasn’t come close in seven full seasons at DEI to winning a Cup title. Hendrick, meanwhile, has won six championships since 1995, and along with four-time champion Gordon, currently fields defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears.
“I think that I’ll have a good opportunity to succeed and win a lot of races,” Earnhardt said. “Personally, I think I will cherish a championship on my mantle when it’s all said and done.
“I think I can live without it, obviously, but I’ll be 90, 95 percent on my goals that I set for myself personally if I can’t gather my championship. I really do want it.”
With four drivers under contract, Hendrick told The Associated Press last month he had “no room at the inn” for Earnhardt. But Hendrick said Wednesday that Busch, who has a win this year and is currently 10th in the standings, was already talking to other teams when Earnhardt decided to leave DEI.
The 22-year-old Busch signed with Hendrick before he turned 18, and has four career Cup victories and a spot in last year’s Chase for the championship to show for it. Hendrick said he and Busch discussed a contract extension, but as those talks progressed in late May — and when Earnhardt became a free agent — they fizzled.
“It became pretty obvious to both of us that maybe a fresh start might be good for both of us,” Hendrick said.
There were three clear front-runners — Hendrick, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing — in the bid to sign Earnhardt and one long shot in Ginn Racing.
The late Dale Earnhardt won six of his seven championships at RCR, and Gibbs has won three of the past six titles. Bobby Ginn, in his first full season as a NASCAR team owner, has transformed a midlevel team into a contender, but has no championships at his organization.
But Childress never seemed to aggressively pursue Junior, and Gibbs officials were tightlipped about their contact with Earnhardt. They made it clear they wouldn’t accept Budweiser, his longtime sponsor, because of conflicts with their family values image.
That left Hendrick, who admitted Wednesday to feeling some pressure about fielding a team featuring the biggest names in racing.
“The pressure is because I want to deliver, and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen, because there’s going to be a lot of people watching,” Hendrick said.