CONCORD, N.C. – This weekend, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s NASCAR Cup Series career will come to a close.
For one final time, he’ll climb behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet SS and race for Hendrick Motorsports.
With the end in sight, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick can’t help but harken back to when Earnhardt first joined the organization – a move that was announced in June 2007.
“I think all the way back to his very first test with us at Atlanta (2007) when he drove our car with City Chevrolet on the hood and All-Star Racing on the side,” Hendrick recalled. “That’s when we were like, ‘OK, this is really happening.’ I kept the car (from the test). That’s how much it meant to me.”
Before he had even competed on the track, Earnhardt’s impact was already evident.
“His star power and his talent immediately created a lot of enthusiasm, both inside and outside the organization,” Hendrick said. “He really jumped in from day one and put his heart and soul into the team.”
For the owner, it was certainly exciting to have Earnhardt on board as a driver for the organization. But it was made even more special by the fact that his son, Ricky, had always told him that Earnhardt would one day race for Hendrick Motorsports.
“I didn’t think it would ever be possible,” Hendrick said. “For that to actually come together, it was like we were fulfilling something that he (Ricky) always believed in and wanted to see happen.”
And the partnership proved fruitful from the very start as the 2008 NASCAR Cup Series season was set to get underway.
Earnhardt started the season-opening exhibition Shootout in seventh place, but by lap six he had already raced to the front of the pack. He led a race-high 47 of 70 laps and made his way to Victory Lane.
“To win the very first race he ran was unbelievable,” Hendrick said. “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 captured his first win with the organization that first season, and he has gone on to win nine times as a Hendrick Motorsports driver.
With the organization, he made the playoffs in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. And he had plenty of highlights along the way, not the least of which was winning the 2014 Daytona 500, which stands out to both Earnhardt and Hendrick.
“I always wanted to leave some kind of mark that somebody would know I was here,” Earnhardt said during the press conference announcing his retirement. “When we won that Daytona 500, that made me feel good about my impression on the company.”
Hendrick had no doubt about Earnhardt’s impression on the organization – and the sport as a whole – but the win in “The Great American Race” was as sweet as any other.
“Any time you can be with Dale in Victory Lane at Daytona, it carries a lot of meaning,” the owner said.
Still, it was the relationship the two men built off the track that was as special as any achievement in the race car.
“The great thing about Rick is that we love each other as people,” Earnhardt said. “Our priority to each other is as a person more than it is owner and driver.”
“In a way, I think we’ve filled a void for each other,” Hendrick said. “No one will ever replace my son and no one will ever replace his dad, but we share a special bond.”
And though Earnhardt will step away from the No. 88 Chevrolet after this weekend’s race and move on to a new venture, he and Hendrick won’t let the change affect their relationship.
“We’ve talked about it a lot,” Hendrick said. “We’ve made a commitment to each other that we’re not going to let this end. 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.”
That special relationship is yet another reason why Earnhardt knows this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be quite emotional.
“I am not sure that I’m ready to be going through all of the emotion that I will have in Homestead, but it’s coming,” the driver said. “I hope that I can handle it well.”