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Forever family

The years slipped by unnoticed, one and two and then five and now 10, and suddenly Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring from full-time competition in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and Rick Hendrick wonders where the time went.

Hendrick owns the car, the No. 88 Chevrolet, that Earnhardt has driven for the last decade. Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Earnhardt is scheduled to make his final start in the series. The Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) signals the end of the 2017 racing season. It also signals the end of a career for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

Amid the palm trees and warm breezes of South Florida, Earnhardt Jr. will close the books on a driving career that will have seen 631 starts and, barring one final victory, 26 wins. There have been 149 top-five and 260 top-10 finishes thus far.

The 68-year-old Hendrick always has enjoyed a close relationship with his drivers, but perhaps none have been as close as he and Earnhardt Jr.

“We have had some heartbreaking finishes,” Hendrick told NASCAR.com, sounding apologetic. “There should have been a lot more wins. But at the end of the day, I got to spend a good part of my life with a young man that I’ve become extremely close to. We have almost like a father/son relationship. Now I get to see him grow through all those stages of life, get a girlfriend, get married and now be a father.

“The biggest regret I have is that he got hurt in the car. But I wouldn’t take anything for the time. I would like to have won championships, I would have liked to have won more races but the good times we had together, the bond that we have with each other, the fun we’ve had together and the relationship that’s been developed is so important to me. That’s not going to end.”

 
 

In 2018, Earnhardt will make at least one previously arranged start in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series. It will come in a car fielded by JR Motorsports, the organization he co-owns with sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Hendrick.

He also will join NBC for work during its portion of the NASCAR season, as well as other projects.

But his Monster Energy Series career officially ends Sunday in Miami when he shuts off the engine of the No. 88 Chevrolet for a final time.

•     •     •

On May 10, 2007, Earnhardt announced he was leaving his family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. organization following months of tense negotiations with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt.

The son of seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt wanted controlling interest in a multi-car organization that had been built by his father, but that had begun to flounder in the years after his passing.

Unable to strike a deal, Earnhardt Jr. decided his best career move would be to leave DEI.

“At 32 years of age, the same age my father was when he made his final and most important career decision, it’s time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships now,” Earnhardt Jr. said in announcing his decision.

Hendrick was the most successful outfit at that time with Johnson headed toward a second consecutive title and Hendrick drivers winning 10 of the first 14 races that season.

Although HMS had no room, fielding teams for Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears, Hendrick went to work.

Earnhardt Jr. had 17 wins, including a Daytona 500 title, 76 top-five and 121 top-10 finishes in 291 starts at DEI. But the stats were only part of the reason Hendrick said he felt a need to bring Earnhardt Jr. into the fold.

PHOTOS: Dale Jr. through the years

Hendrick helped Earnhardt Jr. break a 76-race winless streak in 2008, although a longer one soon followed. John Harrelson | Getty Images

“You know, sometimes in life there are things that you just feel are so right that you just want to make happen,” he said. “And that’s the way I felt about him.”

The Earnhardts “were family,” he said, “because of Robert Gee and knowing Dale and Kelley since they were kids.”

Gee was the Earnhardt’s maternal grandfather and a legendary fabricator who had done business with Hendrick before there was a Hendrick Motorsports.

Ricky Hendrick, Rick’s son, had competed against Earnhardt Jr. in the XFINITY Series. The two had become friends and “Ricky had this big idea that they were going to get together and Dale was going to drive here,” Hendrick said.

The younger Hendrick died, along with nine others, in 2004 when a private plane ferrying the group to a race at Martinsville crashed into the mountainside outside Stuart, Virginia.

After 36 days filled with rumors and conjecture, Earnhardt Jr. made the announcement — beginning the following season, he would resume his driving career at Hendrick Motorsports.

By season’s end, Busch had been released and Earnhardt Jr. was beginning a new chapter in his racing career.

•     •     •

In 2007, Steve Letarte was crew chief for Gordon, by then a four-time champion. The acquisition of Earnhardt was not a surprise among those who knew and those who worked for Hendrick.

“We never were shocked by Mr. Hendrick,” Letarte said. “He always seemed to have his hand on the pulse of the sport. … We knew getting (Earnhardt Jr.) with the company was going to be an improvement. We had no doubt that Mr. Hendrick, in his way, would get that done.”

Sometimes in life there are things that you just feel are so right that you just want to make happen.

In 2008, Earnhardt, teamed with cousin and crew chief Tony Eury Jr., won in his first two outings on the track — the annual Clash at Daytona and Daytona Duel qualifying race.

Tony Eury Jr. was both Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief and his cousin. Robert Laberge | Getty Images

“I thought ‘Man, there’s going to be a lot of trophies.’ I remember telling him, ‘This is a great way to start,’ ” Hendrick said. “It was really special. I just knew, I thought, ‘Man, this is just going to be awesome.’ ”

Earnhardt Jr.’s first points win came in his 15th start at Hendrick, a victory at Michigan snapping a 76-race winless streak that dated back to 2006.

But it was nearly four years before Earnhardt took another checkered flag as the race winner. In the meantime, Eury Jr. had been replaced by Lance McGrew and McGrew was eventually replaced by Letarte.

“I would have loved to have given him more wins and a shot at a championship, that’s the only regret I have,” Hendrick said. “I feel like maybe sometimes I moved a little slow to get him what he needed. He and I both have this same problem, we get attached to people and we don’t want to make a change. He gets that way; he doesn’t want to hurt anybody … sometimes it’s a hard decision.”

By the end of 2010, however, it was apparent a change was needed. Letarte and Gordon had struggled through the season, so much so that Letarte believed when Hendrick called him into his office it was to tell him his services were no longer needed.

Earnhardt, meanwhile, was mired in a two-and-a-half-year, 143-race winless drought.

But instead of getting fired, Letarte said Hendrick told him, “I need you to do me a favor. I need you to go crew chief Dale Earnhardt Jr. We need to get him running better. He can’t run this poorly in our equipment. I’m trying to figure out why and we have to come up with a solution.”

Letarte, who won 10 times with Gordon, immediately went to work. And he knew the parts and pieces were not the problem.

MORE: Full coverage of Junior’s last week

“Jimmie Johnson was dominating and we all had the ability to have the same equipment, so you could rule that out,” Letarte said. “It was more than that; I didn’t know what the more was. I just knew it was more than that. And the only way to define the more was to spend as much time together with that guy as I could. That was my goal and that’s what I did.”

Winning certainly would have helped soothe Junior Nation in 2011, but the issues for both driver and crew chief went deeper than that.

“There was a point in that time that, and this is going to sound odd, but winning wasn’t the goal,” Letarte said. “It was enjoying going back to the race track. We had to start with that.”

By the time Letarte stepped away from the pit box at end of 2014 to become an analyst with NBC for its NASCAR coverage, Earnhardt had won four more times, including that season’s Daytona 500.

Since Letarte’s departure, Greg Ives has called the shots for the team. After a three-win season in ’15, Earnhardt Jr. missed half of ’16 while recovering from a concussion. He enters Sunday’s race winless in his last 54 starts.

“I learned a tremendous amount,” Letarte said of his time with Earnhardt. “I cherish every race I had with Dale Jr. I was raised by Jeff Gordon; I’m thankful for every weekend I had with him, even the ones that weren’t as much fun, I learned something. His approach is very different than Dale’s.

“Dale taught me a lot about the sport, taught me a lot about speedway racing. I think we taught each other … There was never a question of commitment, him to me or me to him.”

•     •     •

There wasn’t a championship, but there were wins and a deep friendship that developed and both the Hendrick organization and Earnhardt Jr. came away winners, you might say.

Was his time there a success?

“I think everyone has to define their own success,” Letarte said. “I think a Daytona 500 and a handful of wins, I think he was pleased that he was able to win those numbers and he would tell you himself, of course he wanted to win more. Any race car driver that doesn’t say that, I’d love to meet him because I’ve never met one that said they’d won enough.

“I think overall, more than just the trophies, we became very good friends. He was very good to the people that worked on the teams. Rick and him have always been very tight. We all mature, we age, and I think he’s going to look back and be proud of those 10 years.”

I think he’s going to look back and be proud of those 10 years.

It’s obvious in speaking with Hendrick that the team owner is proud of what they accomplished, how he helped Earnhardt and just as importantly how Earnhardt helped Hendrick Motorsports.

“He did tell me when we hooked up, he said ‘You know, I’m going to make you more popular. You’re not very popular right now,’ ” Hendrick said, laughing. “He brought a lot of excitement to our company. … He grew our fan base tremendously. You’ve got Jeff Gordon who could reach across different types of folks and then you get Junior with his fan base. All of a sudden it elevated our company. The people wanted to be involved with him.

“I don’t know how to say it. … It was like you had Peyton Manning on your team, or Kobe Bryant.”

Both Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have described their relationship as like a father and son. Mike Comer | Getty Images

•    •    •

In 2008, more than a month before the season began, Earnhardt Jr. showed up in Daytona for preseason testing, even though his own Hendrick team wasn’t scheduled to test until the following week.

Ten years later, and a bit further south, he makes his final start for the organization.

Ten years. Hendrick wonders how the time went by so quickly.

“I love watching guys like Jimmie come in and grow up and become a superstar and a family man,” Hendrick said. “Jeff, the same way. Dale, the same way. In life when you work so hard and you do things, relationships to me mean an awful lot. Being around people you like and love and do things with. That’s super important.

“Dale and I have had so many special times. … It’s been more than a race car driver/team owner (relationship), way more than that. And it’s something that will go on forever.”