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Rick Hendrick: Earnhardt Jr. has ‘been an ambassador’

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DETROIT — If Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final full NASCAR season ends without a playoff-clinching win, team owner Rick Hendrick says it won’t sour what has been an impressive body of work in stock-car racing.

Hendrick’s remarks came Thursday at Chevrolet’s unveiling of the Camaro ZL1,which the automaker will field in the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Earnhardt, 42, has driven for Hendrick Motorsports since 2008 and has 26 career wins, the most recent coming in November 2015; he announced in April that this season will be his last.

Earnhardt sits 23rd in the series standings and in need of a victory in the remaining four regular-season races to secure a playoff berth. Hendrick said he would cherish a storybook send-off with one final trip to Victory Lane, but that Earnhardt’s legacy in the sport is secure regardless.

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“It won’t matter a bit,” Hendrick said. “To me, you’ll look at the championships that he won in XFINITY, you’ll look at his contribution, what he’s done to mentor young drivers, what he’s done to give people an opportunity, the way he’s conducted himself with the fans and the kids. I mean, his contribution … being a genuine, real person. If you’re a champion and you win a lot of races, that’s great, but I think you’ve got to look at what contribution did you make to the sport that wasn’t just for you, it was for a lot of other people.”

The backdrop for Hendrick’s statements was Earnhardt taking selfies and chatting with General Motor employees attending Thursday afternoon’s Camaro reveal. It’s part of what has made Earnhardt the series’ most popular driver for 14 years running.

“Of course, we’d love to see him win and get in the (playoffs) and how great it would be if he won the championship,” Hendrick said. “I think that would be great, but I think all the good things that he’s done, all the people he’s helped, and he has been a champion and he has won. When you see people like today just gravitating toward him, he’s been an ambassador.

“He’s done a lot for a lot of people, me included. He told me he was going to make me popular,” Hendrick said through laughs, “so I appreciate that.”