Dale Earnhardt Jr: “I was gunna go down with the ship at DEI”
Dale Earnhardt Jr first met Rick Hendrick at an ARCA Racing Series event in Topeka, Kansas. Mr H was running in the race as well, in those days the team owner would jump into a car from time to time. Dale Jr was 16 years old, Rick Hendrick approached and jokingly wrote down a contract, on a napkin.
Rick Hendrick took the napkin to Dale Earnhardt Sr. He stated, “Hey, I signed your son. He’s my driver.”
Ahead of the 2008 season, the joke became a reality. Again, the two met to discuss a contract. This time it was a real one. Rick Hendrick wrote down a number, on a napkin.
Dale Earnhardt Jr never looked at the number. Instead, he told Rick to make a deal with Kelley Earnhardt. Rick Hendrick later joked that he was pleased Dale never looked at the napkin, because it meant Dale never saw was he was actually willing to pay.
Dale Earnhardt Jr on Rick Hendrick
“When I went to drive for him, we talked and there was a bit of a conversation that maybe we filled a void for each other,” Dale Earnhardt Jr explains via the Dale Jr Download.
“He lost his son and I lost my dad. Maybe we kinda looked at each other to fill that void somewhat.”
“As time went on, that’s what happened. At least for me. I can’t speak for Rick. At least for me, that’s definitely what happened.”
“He’s helped me with my relationship with Amy. He’s advised me with my businesses outside of driving for him. He’s advised me at JR Motorsports. He’s knows enough about my life and everything that’s going on in it. And he cares enough to take the time to give me advice that’s gunna help me.”
I was gunna go down with the ship at DEI
-Dale Earnhardt Jr
“He gave me a second chance, even a third chance. I felt like I was gunna go down with the ship at DEI if I stayed there. He gave me an opportunity to go to his place, which was healthy and considered on the best teams in the business.”
“Then, when we had our struggles in 2009-2010, those years when we weren’t winning. Any other driver would have been let go. He hung on to me. Told me over and over that we would get it right. That he believed in me and that when we got the right combination of people, that it would work.”
In 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr had a win and sixteen top 10 finishes. That was his debut season with Hendrick Motorsports. In 2009 and 2010 combined he took thirteen top 10 runs and picked up zero wins.
Any other driver would have been let go in that situation.
“I know, just as well as anybody else, that any other driver would have been let go in that situation. A stroke of luck, I got partnered with Letarte and that was the magic switch. That was the third time he saved my career.”
In 2011, Dale Earnhardt Jr welcomes his new crew chief Steve Letarte. They didn’t visit victory lane that year. However, in the 2012 season he did. He won a race that race and collected twenty top 10 finishes. In 2014, their final year together, Earnhardt too four wins.
“I know he’s sad about me not driving anymore. But, we both talk a lot about what we’re gunna do together. I don’t know what that is. He wants to figure out what we can do at Hendrick as far as the motorsports program. However I can help, I’d want to do that.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr and Rick Hendrick currently own dealerships, together. In addition, Rick Hendrick is a part owner at JR Motorsports.
Dale Earnhardt Jr held it together for the most part during his final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Until the end, when Rick Hendrick met him while climbing from the car on pit road. Rick Hendrick was handed the race helmet and Dale Earnhardt Jr let out a tear.
Dale Earnhardt Jr traded the helmet, for the car. He will keep his final car. He dinged it up, high-fivin Martin Truex Jr on the cool-down lap. Dale Earnhardt Jr did that because he “wanted to be reminded” of Martin Truex Jr winning that race.
“In Rick’s mind, I don’t know why, that’s a fair trade,” Dale Earnhardt Jr stated.
“If I didn’t finish in one piece, I probably wouldn’t want it.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr concludes his full-time NASCAR Cup Series career with 631 starts. He picked up 26 wins along the way. That places him 29th on the all-time NASCAR wins list.
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