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Junior expresses relief with contract, Chase

September 02, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Relief.

That's the emotion that came to the mind of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway when he described a five-year contract extension that will keep him an employee of Hendrick Motorsports through 2017.

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Dale Jr. gives the details on his contract renewal and talks about making the Chase.

"I'm happy that it happened," Junior said. "Me and Rick talked on the phone about five months ago. I just told him that if we were going to do another deal, I wanted to do it now because I didn't want to talk about it next year and be any kind of distraction."

That meant allowing sister Kelley Earnhardt to handle the specifics while he stayed out of the day-to-day negotiations.

"I didn't want to talk about numbers and base salary versus percentages and this, that and the other," Earnhardt said. "[I told her,] 'Whatever you think is fair is fine with me.' "

Junior will continue to work with crew chief Steve Letarte, a move that already has paid dividends as Earnhardt closes in on his first Chase berth since 2008.

"I'm excited about it," Junior said. "[I'm] happy that I've got a place to work and happy to have Rick's commitment. Hopefully, me and Steve can continue to grow and start to do what we want to do on the race track. I'm looking forward to it, man. It puts it at ease, a little bit."

And cementing a Chase spot following Sunday night's AdvoCare 500 would be one way to take away some of the pressure.

"I think relief is the right word, because everyone expects you to make the Chase," Junior said. "And if you don't make the Chase, you get that tag on you. You get labeled when you miss the Chase. I just want to avoid being in that situation.

"There's only a few drivers who get to make it and it's a pretty competitive sport. But if you can be consistent and be smart -- I made a few mistakes and a few driver errors that I wish I could have back now -- with the kind of team I have, I should make the Chase. We're plenty good enough to do that."

Junior decided to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the 2007 season but realizes now how different his situation was back then.

"Driving with my family was really easy," Earnhardt said. "I didn't have to worry about job security. I was around a lot of relative and family friends. It was a relaxed situation. When I drove the red No. 8 and we had a bad race, we'd hear from fans and the media about it. But you know, we didn't care too much because your family wasn't going to talk crap about you behind your back. It was just easier to rebound.

"Now when I have a bad race, I take it home and it lasts two or three days before I get over it."

But Earnhardt believes he made the correct decision in 2008, and again this week.

"I always idolized Rick. I always idolized that company," Junior said. "I never knew what the inside of that place looked like, worked like and how they did it. I wanted that opportunity and I'm glad I got it. I'm real lucky and fortunate to be there."