Dale Jr. turns focus to title hopes
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., there’s no place like home.
Although it has taken nearly four years to find a comfort zone at Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt will have the next six seasons behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet to continue to build his NASCAR legacy.
Earnhardt, 36, agreed to a contract extension Thursday through 2017. He had one year remaining on his current deal with team owner Rick Hendrick.
“It’s great to have it all wrapped up so quickly and far in advance,” Earnhardt said. “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.”
Earnhardt is ninth in the 2011 point standings — 39 points ahead of 11th-place Brad Keselowski. Executing the extension with two races remaining before the Chase for the Sprint Cup will allow Earnhardt and the No. 88 crew to concentrate solely on performance without the distraction of a contract hanging over his head.
For the long haul, Earnhardt has security of knowing that Hendrick Motorsports is likely where he will end his NASCAR career. Earnhardt will be 43 when his contract expires at the end of 2017.
“We’re excited to have everything formalized and announced,” Hendrick said. "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.
“My feelings haven’t changed since the day he first signed with us. I’m committed as ever to putting him in the best possible situation to be successful and compete for wins and championships.”
Earnhardt has amassed 18 Sprint Cup wins in 12 full seasons on the tour. The past three years at Hendrick Motorsports have produced only one win (Michigan June 2008) and a single Chase for the Championship berth that same year, but Rick Hendrick vowed to provide NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver with the resources to compete for victories and championships.
Certainly, he has held up his end of the bargain.
Two days following the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, Hendrick put a plan in motion to join Earnhardt with crew chief Steve Letarte and the former No. 24 team. Although the team has yet to win, there has been a dramatic turnaround in Earnhardt’s performance and demeanor.
Earnhardt has won at Atlanta and Richmond, sites of the next two races before the Chase begins, and he is capable of winning in the next two weeks. The overriding challenge now is simply qualifying for the Chase.
Earnhardt acknowledges that just qualifying for the Chase is a hollow proposition unless a driver is an actual championship contender.
"You have a lot of race fans; a lot of sponsors and me as a driver; my car owner; everybody . . . that is your ultimate goal to get in the Chase at the start of the season,” Earnhardt said. “It is important to us all on a professional level.
"On a personal level, I don’t really know how much it matters to me. Making the Chase is just an afterthought. I really want to win the championship, you know. Making the Chase is great and all, but as a person, you want to be the champion. Making the Chase doesn’t really make you feel better at the end of the season. If you don’t win a championship, you are really disappointed.
“The Chase stuff, the points and everything sort of takes care of itself. You try to do the best you can throughout the year to put yourself in the best position there, but, if I miss the Chase, I’ll probably catch a lot of (expletive) about it. It will save me a lot of (expletive) if I make the Chase, so that is probably the only thing, personally that I have to worry about.”