CONCORD, N.C. – Late last month, Rick Hendrick’s phone rang.
The Hendrick Motorsports owner saw that it was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has driven for the organization since 2008 – but their relationship extends long before that.
And Hendrick knew right away the call was an important one.
“When he said he wanted to talk to me, I had this inkling it might be pretty serious,” Hendrick recalled.
The two arranged a meeting, and on March 29, they sat down together and discussed the driver’s decision to bring his NASCAR Cup Series career to a close at the end of the 2017 season.
“We spent an hour-and-a-half, two hours talking and crying, looking back and looking ahead,” Earnhardt said. “Me and him sat in the office and let it all hang out. We said a lot of things to each other that I think we've both been wanting to say for a long time.”
To Hendrick, it felt like a member of his family had come to talk to him.
“He’s like a son,” the owner said.
And it meant a lot to him to be able to share that conversation together.
“We spent a lot of time talking about how much we've done together, care about each other, and then immediately went to the next chapter,” Hendrick said. “But it was a tough conversation, very emotional conversation, just because of our relationship and how we care about each other.”
"We spent an hour-and-a-half, two hours talking and crying, looking back and looking ahead."Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt noted how important it was to him to honor the final year of his contract with Hendrick Motorsports, a factor that stuck with him throughout the extensive rehab that helped him recover from a concussion that caused him to miss the final 18 races of the 2016 season.
So, when he broke the news to Hendrick, he didn’t do so lightly.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, I think the toughest thing about this decision was having to tell you,” Earnhardt told Hendrick during his retirement press conference. “I just didn't want to disappoint you. You mean so much to me.”
But Hendrick wasn’t disappointed. Far from it.
“His response? He told me he loved me,” Earnhardt recalled of their meeting. “The great thing about Rick is that we love each other as people. Our priority to each other is as a person more than it is owner and driver. He’d love me to keep driving, but he wants me to be happy as a person, first and foremost.
“That made me comfortable about my decision.”
From there, the discussion quickly moved to how best to announce Earnhardt’s decision to the world – and where to go from there.
In his retirement speech, Earnhardt noted that he does not see himself detaching from the sport after his Cup retirement. Rather, he wants “to be a part of the future of this sport for many, many years to come.”
And his relationship with Hendrick will be a critical part of that mission.
“Dale wants to help me here at Motorsports, and at JRM bringing the young drivers along. We're in the automobile business together,” Hendrick explained. “When we came out of that deal, we were excited about what's next.”
"He wants me to be happy as a person, first and foremost. That made me comfortable about my decision.”Dale Earnhardt Jr.
And what’s next in the immediate future are the more than two dozen races remaining in 2017, which will be Earnhardt’s final Cup campaign.
The driver said his goals haven’t changed, and the No. 88 team is all the more “fired up” to get to Victory Lane.
Looking back at his career, Earnhardt recalled a handful of moments that stood out to him. And a major one was winning the Daytona 500 with Hendrick Motorsports in 2014.
“I tell him all the time that he's old enough to start relaxing a little bit, but he won't listen,” Earnhardt said of Hendrick. “He'd rather be in Victory Lane than fishing off the back of his boat – just barely, but that's how he is. He loves to win.”
“I always kind of wanted to leave some kind of mark here,” the driver continued. “I wanted to leave some kind of mark that somebody would know I was here. When we won that Daytona 500, that made me feel good about my impression on the company. It's always fun to win with Rick, because like I said, that's what he loves the most.”
As special as all the wins have been, the relationship he has built with Hendrick has meant the most to Earnhardt. And it was never more on display than in the honest conversation the two were able to have about the driver’s decision.
“Becoming a bigger part of your life has changed mine forever,” Earnhardt told Hendrick as he officially announced his retirement. “You gave me guidance and direction that will reward me for as long as I live.”
“I'm fortunate today,” Hendrick responded, “because you and I have got a lot left to do.”