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Earnhardt is driving over to Hendrick

NASCAR star switches to the powerful team, where his teammates will include Jeff Gordon, the bane of many of his fans.

June 14, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will join the powerful Hendrick Motorsports team next year in hopes of earning his first Nextel Cup title, but in doing so NASCAR's most popular driver will test the loyalty of his enormous fan base.

The move, which Earnhardt and owner Rick Hendrick announced Wednesday, means Earnhardt's new teammates will include four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon -- the bane of many Earnhardt fans.

Only two months ago, Gordon's stock car was pelted with beer cans and other debris after he won at Phoenix to tie Earnhardt's late father, seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, in career wins with 76.

It happened again the next week when Gordon won at Talladega, Ala., to surpass Earnhardt, who was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.

But the younger Earnhardt, who is leaving his father's namesake team because he believes he'll get better race cars, said he hoped his fans would support his decision to drive Hendrick's Chevrolets.

"Once we get on the race track and have some success, we'll be able to give them what they deserve," Earnhardt, 32, said at a news conference.

"I want to get them on their feet more often than I do," he said of his fans, dubbed the "Red Army" because so many wear the color matching Earnhardt's red No. 8 Chevrolet.

"Jeff has always been a real good friend of mine," he said of Gordon, but added, "We do have a personal competition; if you want to call it rivalry, fine. I'll still have that in me, just as an Earnhardt, to beat Jeff Gordon."

Gordon declined to comment about Earnhardt until this weekend, when the series holds its next race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, a Gordon spokesman said.

The move "makes good sense for Earnhardt because the [Hendrick] team will help elevate his game," said Michael Pitts, who co-teaches a course on NASCAR as an associate professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"The hardest thing is going to be for the fans, who like to root for him and hate Jeff Gordon," he said.

Earnhardt also will join two other California natives on Hendrick's team, reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson of El Cajon and Casey Mears of Bakersfield.

Kyle Busch currently is the fourth driver at Hendrick, and NASCAR rules limit teams to four drivers. But Busch and Hendrick agreed that the 22-year-old driver of the No. 5 Chevy -- whose aggressive driving and occasional brash comments have raised hackles with rivals and fans -- would look for another team in 2008.

"After prolonged negotiations, we mutually agreed that a fresh start was in order," Busch said in a statement.

Terms of Earnhardt's five-year deal with Charlotte, N.C.-based Hendrick weren't disclosed. But Earnhardt, who is estimated to command an annual salary of $20 million or more, has said the move isn't about money but about winning.

Hendrick has won six Cup championships since he joined the series full-time in 1984. The team also has been red-hot this year, winning 10 of the first 14 points races so far, although Hendrick noted that luck played a role in several victories.

The addition of Earnhardt to Hendrick's stable prompted suggestions that Hendrick would become a "super team" in NASCAR, similar to great New York Yankees teams in baseball.

But at this point, Earnhardt's arrival provides little change to the competitive balance in NASCAR's premier series.

Since Busch joined the circuit three years ago, he has won four races, including the race at Bristol, Tenn., in March.

Earnhardt, commonly called Junior, has won only two races in the same period and is winless this year.

But there is no denying the potential impact of matching Hendrick's top-tier cars and personnel with Earnhardt's popularity.

"It's important to me and Junior to protect his brand and grow it," Hendrick said. "It's a situation where we want to give him the best equipment we can."

Earnhardt became perhaps the most sought-after free agent in the sport's history a month ago when he announced plans to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) after this year.

A winner of 17 races in his seven-year Cup career, Earnhardt said he preferred to keep driving Chevrolets. So, from the outset the sport's top Chevy teams -- Hendrick, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing -- were considered top candidates.

Earnhardt's family has long ties to Hendrick, which the driver said "for me, personally, had a huge impact on my decision."

"Me and Rick have been friends since I was little," Earnhardt said. "He's always treated me with a lot of respect. He competes with integrity and most importantly he wins races."

Both said it hasn't yet been decided what car number Earnhardt will have at Hendrick, or whether Earnhardt's current main sponsor, Budweiser, will move with him.

Anheuser-Busch, Budweiser's parent company, said "we look forward to exploring options" with Hendrick "to continue Budweiser's relationship with him as he enters this new stage of his racing career."

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