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Menzer: Hendrick doubles down with Earnhardt extension

September 01, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

After inking a new deal, car owner's bet on driver just increased dramatically

It wasn't really breaking news when Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday that driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been signed to a five-year contract extension.

The deal had been imminent for some time. In fact, both team owner Rick Hendrick and Earnhardt had said back in May that they basically had a handshake agreement, and all that needed to be worked out were the finer points to make the deal official.

"It's just that chemistry. Stevie will not let you be down when you're around him. He's just perfect for Dale."

--RICK HENDRICK

That it took virtually all of the summer never meant it was ever in danger of not happening. Hendrick believes in Earnhardt, and vice versa.

"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," Earnhardt said back in May, when reports first surfaced that he was close to a long-term extension of the deal he originally signed amid much fanfare prior to the 2008 season. "We've still got a lot of things I'd like to accomplish on the race track."

That much is obvious. Earnhardt would be the first to admit that his No. 88 team has been more than a little short on accomplishments over his first three-plus seasons at Hendrick.

He has won one race and made one Chase to the Sprint Cup playoff. He's in position to qualify for his second Chase berth at the moment, sitting ninth in points heading into this Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway -- with only that and the following Saturday night's race at Richmond left before the Chase cutoff.

Same old, same old

But unfortunately for Earnhardt and his legions of followers, this year has an all-too-familiar feel to it. It was supposed to be different, this first season under new crew chief Steve Letarte -- and at first it appeared it would be. He nearly won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, agonizingly running out of gas with the checkered flag in sight. He finished second the following week at Kansas, and earlier in the season also finished second at Martinsville.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Career Cup Statistics
YearStartsAvg. St.Avg. Finish
20103619.018.6
20093622.223.3
20083610.314.1
20073614.718.6
20063619.213.5
20053624.920.5
20043610.912.1
20033612.512.7
20023612.817.1
20013616.514.4
20003414.620.9
1999514.421.4

As late as June 12, after finishing sixth in the Five-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono, Earnhardt sat a lofty third in the points. But he had talked a few weeks earlier about the need to avoid the summer swoon that had haunted him in years past -- and sure enough, it soon hit. In the 10 races that have followed, he's finished in the top 10 only once (ninth in the return trip to Pocono on Aug. 7) while dropping six spots in the standings.

So why make the signing of the five-year contract extension official now? Would it have been smarter for Hendrick to cut his losses and perhaps walk away from the partnership?

Well, that was never going to happen. The two were close when Earnhardt came on board, and are closer than ever now. Plus Hendrick's belief that Earnhardt eventually will begin winning races again, and that he will indeed compete for championships, has never wavered.

Still, questions from critics persist. Earnhardt will turn 37 years old in October. Why sign him to a five-year extension now on a deal that was set to expire at the end of the 2012 season?

Hendrick revealed much about why he thought it was precisely the right thing to do during a revealing chat with the media at a charity event in the spring, just before the running of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was about that time that both he and Earnhardt admitted that they were close on making the extension a reality.

Hendrick talked expansively then about how pleased he was with how Earnhardt's team was performing. Hendrick insisted there is "magic" in the chemistry being forged between Earnhardt and Letarte -- the third different crew chief to attempt to breathe more life into the No. 88 group since Earnhardt's arrival.

"He loves that team," Hendrick said of Earnhardt. "It's just that chemistry. Stevie will not let you be down when you're around him. He's just perfect for Dale, and they like each other. And Dale, I think, has confidence that he has a team behind him that believes in him. The chemistry is there, and he's got something he wants to prove."

More to it

Of course, there always is more to what meets the eye on a surface inspection when it comes to Earnhardt. He is different from every other driver employed in Sprint Cup, and brings more to the table than any of the others in terms of potential sponsorship dollars and positive exposure.

No one has more fans, or more passionate backers. To them, it almost doesn't even matter if he ever wins another race. Of course they want him to, but they're going to love him and stand by him whether he does or not.

Earnhardt, on the other hand, has insisted repeatedly this season that it's only a matter of time until he's back in Victory Lane in a Cup points race.

"I want to get back to Victory Lane really bad."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

"We're just all kind of working together as a unit. We want to win a race. I want to get back to Victory Lane really bad," he said recently.

"The fans have 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."

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. It is further proof that time flies, even when sometimes cars -- as in Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevrolet all too often over the past three years -- don't.

Earnhardt and Hendrick had mutual higher expectations when they first joined forces. Both said at the time that Darrell Waltrip's prediction of six race wins (including the Daytona 500) in his first season at HMS "sounded about right."

But the No. 88 team has managed only one points race win during their tenure together. That was at Michigan in June of 2008, and that was 117 points races ago.

Why believe in Junior when he hasn't won in so long and has finished 12th or worse in points in five of the past six seasons? Is it merely a business move to ensure that all the sponsorship dollars Earnhardt guarantees to bring in stay at Hendrick and won't leak out elsewhere in the coming years? Is it merely loyalty, which while admirable, might be misplaced?

Hendrick doesn't seem to care about all that. He has insisted again and again that Earnhardt's best days as a Hendrick Motorsports driver are still ahead of him -- and he put his money where his mouth has been with Thursday's announcement.

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

It will need to pay off even more for Hendrick to gain the expected return on his investment, because the car owner's bet on Earnhardt just increased dramatically.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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