Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick still an unlikely pairing
by Tom Bowles
Jeff Gordon, 40-years-old now, was just a wide-eyed 20-something when his biggest challenge was to topple the man they called “The Intimidator.” Dale Earnhardt Sr. called him Wonder Boy; Gordon often simply called him on the phone, angry, once the race was over after the Man In Black had used his bumper to make a point. Together, they clashed in one of the series’ most compelling rivalries: Gordon denied Earnhardt a record eighth championship in 1995 and went on to win two more over the next three seasons while Earnhardt began a precipitous decline.
Off the track, the two gradually became friends and business partners — but on it? The battles for position were filled with ferocity. Earnhardt, who detested the multi-car system — he never believed in the modern conception of a “teammate” — was forced to adapt as Richard Childress Racing expanded to combat the burgeoning Hendrick Motorsports dynasty. On-track, the sparring clearly went Gordon and Hendrick’s way in the end: 52 victories for the No. 24 compared to 17 for Earnhardt’s team from 1994-2000. Even now, in 2011, Earnhardt’s RCR organization has yet to win another title since Gordon’s first, always a step behind in the expansion from two cars, to three, to four.
And as for Hendrick? They’ve become the class of Sprint Cup’s elite, with five straight titles and nine overall since the beginning of the 1995 season.
I bring this all up because Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., has just inked his legacy with the very team that tortured his father on-track during the 1990s. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em … join ‘em. Earnhardt Jr.’s deal, running through 2017, means he’ll spend at least a decade driving for Hendrick Motorsports, running the No. 88 until the ripe old age of 43. That easily eclipses eight-plus years driving for his father’s former company, DEI, and becomes the place through which his NASCAR career will be forever judged. There will be no magical transfer to Richard Childress Racing or running the No. 3 car that made his father famous. And there will be no resurrection of his father’s company, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Instead, JR Motorsports, a non-Hendrick entity pretty much in name only keeps the extended family employed and the dollars rolling in to the Hendrick hub. Danica Patrick’s full-time addition to that roster in 2012 pretty much sealed the deal on an extension everyone knows was Earnhardt’s only desire for months.
“It’s great to have it all wrapped up so quickly and far in advance,” Earnhardt said in a press release announcing the signing. “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.’
“I’m really happy at Hendrick Motorsports and enjoy working with everyone here. 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.”
And so Junior smiles, for reasons unknown, as he has a single victory and 18 top-5 finishes in his first four years driving the No. 88. In comparison, Earnhardt, Jr. had six wins, 16 top 5s, and 21 top 10s in a single season driving his No. 8 DEI Chevrolet in 2004, a year he won the Daytona 500 and came just one Atlanta misfortune away from a title. With Johnson, Gordon and the incoming Kasey Kahne on the Hendrick roster for 2012, you wonder whether there will ever be room for Earnhardt to achieve such gaudy numbers again. Even this year — a promising rebuilding season under crew chief Steve Letarte — he’s on track to lead fewer laps (less than 100, in fact) than any season in his 12-year Cup career.
Of course, DEI was no longer an option the second Earnhardt, Jr. had the infamous falling out with stepmother Teresa. Fantasy endings for NASCAR’s favorite son, long a part of the “old guard” of millions of Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans, went out the window at that moment and Hendrick swooped in where the figment of their imagination left off. What’s left of that old DEI organization is being run almost exclusively by Chip Ganassi, signing on as a partner at the conclusion of 2008; even Earnhardt, Jr.’s nephew, Jeffrey, is now out of the fold, having signed to run Grand Am next year with Rick Ware Racing.
Meanwhile, Childress changed his focus long ago from reuniting with an Earnhardt to helping one of his grandsons develop into a champion. Austin Dillon, along with younger brother Ty, will hold the key to the organization’s success or failure over the course of the coming decade. Austin, contending for the Truck Series title, is even rumored to one day drive Dale Sr.’s former No. 3 at the Cup level. Of course, there’s only so long a car owner can wait for an opening. By 2017, Childress will be 72, possibly retired and handing the keys to son-in-law and longtime right-hand man Mike Dillon.
So who knows what the next six years will bring for Earnhardt at Hendrick. But all we know now is a man whose father set a path for his future will finish it the one place no one thought he’d ever be: behind the wheel of the team that brought his father down. In the end, when they write out this career resume, Hendrick and Earnhardt — names once on opposite sides of the spectrum — will join together for the legacy of the sport’s Most Popular Driver this century.
Yes, you wonder if the Intimdator is watching it all unfold, and how he must be reacting upstairs. God help his rivals in tonight’s Friday Night Short Track Spectacular up in Heaven…