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Menzer: Hendrick not done betting on Earnhardt's future

May 22, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- As fan vote extends Junior's All-Star streak, Hendrick says 'magic' in the making

Dale Earnhardt Jr. insisted Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway that he did not believe he was a lock to win the fan vote if he needed it to get into the Sprint All-Star Race.

"Generally, anytime there is a contest and they don't announce the winner, there are no guarantees. I see it a whole lot different, I think, from my side of the fence. So I didn't take it for granted," Earnhardt said.

"We've still got a lot of things I'd like to accomplish on the race track. If I get the opportunity to stick around, I'm definitely excited about that. We've been talking about it, and hopefully we won't have any trouble with that."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

Then again, it appears he never takes anything for granted. That goes for his future at Hendrick Motorsports as well. After it was announced that Earnhardt had indeed captured the fan vote to earn entry into his 12th consecutive All-Star event, Earnhardt confirmed that an earlier report stating he is close to agreeing to a multi-year contract extension at Hendrick Motorsports is correct.

Told team owner Rick Hendrick had said as much prior to the All-Star Race, Earnhardt was asked if he could comment on it. He quickly made it clear that signing an extension would make him a very happy man.

"We've been talking on the phone a little bit, just kind of saying what we think," Earnhardt said. "I'm excited to be where I am. From my heart, it's an amazing organization -- and there are some great, great people there. I've learned a lot being around there, and it's made me a better person.

"We've still got a lot of things I'd like to accomplish on the race track. If I get the opportunity to stick around, I'm definitely excited about that. We've been talking about it, and hopefully we won't have any trouble with that."

Hendrick's view

It seems remarkable that Earnhardt already is in the fourth year of the five-year deal he signed with Hendrick prior to the 2008 season. Time has indeed flown faster than his No. 88 Chevrolet.

Even though Earnhardt and Hendrick had mutual higher expectations -- they both said at the time that Darrell Waltrip's prediction of six race wins in his first season at HMS "sounded about right" -- he's won only one points race during their tenure together. That was at Michigan in June of 2008, and that was 105 points races ago.

Earnhardt will turn 37 in October. Why sign him to a three- to five-year extension now on a deal that is set to expire at the end of the 2012 season?

Hendrick revealed much about why he thinks it is exactly the right thing to do during a recent chat with the media at a charity event.

Hendrick talked expansively about how pleased he is with how Earnhardt's team has performed this season, the first in which the driver has been paired with crew chief Steve Letarte. Heading into this Sunday's next points race, the Coca-Cola 600 at CMS, Earnhardt sits fourth in the point standings.

Hendrick insisted there is "magic" in the chemistry being forged between Earnhardt and Letarte.

"You know how Dale feels about Stevie. He's said it. I don't think you guys have seen Dale walking on his toes like this in a long time," Hendrick said.

He talked about how Earnhardt is more into everything that is going on at Hendrick these days, including critical post-practice and post-race team debriefings. Earnhardt has admitted he used to oversleep for some of them, but said he now not only stays awake for them, but hangs on every word.

Hendrick said he sees and hears Earnhardt contributing more and more to the valuable conversations between his four drivers and their crew chiefs. The top two drivers at Hendrick, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, have won a total of nine Cup championships between them.

"Those [conversations and debriefings] are critical and I think he wanted to contribute [earlier] and didn't think he was, or could. And he is now contributing a lot now," Hendrick said. "You can see the difference when he walks in that trailer [at a race track] and he's got the fastest car -- and they're asking him, instead of them asking Jimmie or whatever."

Saturday night fever

That brings us back to Saturday night at Charlotte. For the first time in a decade, Earnhardt was not guaranteed a spot in the All-Star Race -- wink, wink. His 10-year entry exemption for winning the event in 2000 was up, and he hadn't won a race in the previous year so that meant he had to compete in the preliminary Sprint Showdown.

Most progressive thinkers figured he was in all along, even if he wasn't one of the top two finishers in the Showdown. That's because there always was the fan vote to fall back on, and no one has more fans -- or more fervent fans -- than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Showdown

Results
Pos.DriverMake
2.Brad Keselowski Dodge
3.Marcos Ambrose Ford
4.A.J. Allmendinger Ford
5.Joey Logano Toyota

Earnhardt admitted he had at least an inkling that he might get in via that route, which proved necessary when he finished sixth in the Showdown.

"I kept up with the temperature of it on the Internet. They worked pretty hard and were committed, so I appreciate the help," Earnhardt said.

"I knew my fans would do a great job. They've voted me the Most Popular Driver award [eight years running]. They support us so much and really believe in what we're trying to accomplish. It makes you want to get out there and work harder and harder to try to be successful and get to where you want to be as a competitor, when you've got that many people behind you."

Junior Nation got him in, but he didn't have the car to finish the job in the race for the $1 million prize that went to the All-Star winner. Earnhardt finished 14th while Carl Edwards won. The consolation is that these days, Earnhardt knows he has fans -- and a car owner -- who love him unconditionally and are committed to a long-term relationship.

Hendrick doesn't care what the critics might say. Why believe in Junior? Is it merely a business move to ensure that all the sponsorship dollars Earnhardt guarantees to bring in won't leak out elsewhere in the coming years?

Nope. Hendrick obviously thinks Earnhardt's best HMS days are ahead of him.

"He appreciates what's he's got, and he loves that team," Hendrick said. "He's really focused and he's really trying hard, and he's really put all of the effort he can muster into it. And it's paying off."

It will need to, because Hendrick's bet on it is about to get a whole lot bigger.