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Publication: NASCAR News
Junior looks for his place

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         NASCAR NEWS - Thursday, February 14, 2008
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Amid banners at Hendrick, Junior looks for his place
By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM

When the hot water heater in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s motor 
coach broke down during last year's fall race weekend at 
Richmond, Va., his future employer stepped forward with 
a potential replacement. Rick Hendrick wasn't traveling 
to the next event in New Hampshire, so the car owner 
offered Earnhardt the use of his new motor coach, which 
would otherwise sit idle. Even though the driver would 
be working for Hendrick Motorsports in a few months, the 
proposal made him uneasy. 

"I can't take your coach," he told Hendrick. "I haven't 
earned the right." 

Earnhardt may be the most popular and most marketable 
driver in NASCAR today, but those facts have never diluted 
his very clear sense of place. He is well aware of his role 
in the sport, what his legions of fans expect from him, 
the weight and legacy carried by his last name. He's as 
passionate about the circuit's history as he is its 
present. He knows he has no Cup-level championships, he 
knows he has no race wins in more than a season, and he 
knows he's joined an organization with an abundance of 
both. 

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Debates about how Earnhardt will fit in at Hendrick often 
center on the purely visual, on how a driver who likes to 
wear facial scruff and untucked shirts will mesh with a 
race team where everyone else is freshly shaven and out-
fitted in crisp Oxford knit. And it's true, there is 
often a stark contrast in both personality and appearance 
between Earnhardt and his new teammates, who aren't often 
seen publicly in just a T-shirt and jeans. But as much as 
Earnhardt burns to be the best, as much as longs to unleash 
that championship driver that he believes dwells inside 
him, his immediate acceptance at Hendrick centers around 
one thing -- humility. 

It's not a personality trait often associated with an 
Earnhardt. But it's there, in his willingness to fly to 
Daytona for a test session he wasn't scheduled to drive, 
just to show support for teammates who were. It's there 
in the eagerness and anticipation that led him to be the 
first Hendrick driver to show up for offseason photo 
shoots. It's there in the way he keeps quiet and listens 
when he's on the sprawling Hendrick campus in north 
Charlotte. It's there in his admittance that teammates 
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are the drivers with all 
the championships, and his uneasiness with the fact that 
his very move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. may be upstaging 
them. 

"There have been a lot of references to me coming over 
here, and it's sort of taken over the headlines here, so 
to speak. I'm kind of uncomfortable with that. I don't 
want those guys to resent me for that. I'm just trying 
to come in here and do well," said Earnhardt, who hasn't 
won a Cup points event since his triumph at Richmond in 
the spring of 2006, now 62 race weekends ago. 

"When we're working around here or doing things around 
here, I just keep my mouth shut. I don't want to give them 
the opinion that I'm trying to steal the limelight when 
those guys are well deserving of it. Jimmie's a champion, 
been the champion the last two years, a big story going 
into this season should be whether he's going to three-
peat. That's the story. For me to not have won a race last 
year and be a page ahead of him in the newspaper, it 
shouldn't be that way. That's not my intention. I just 
want to come in here and work. I want them to be glad I'm 
here. I want them to be happy to have me as a teammate 
because I helped them in some way throughout the year. 
That's my goal." 

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But only so much of that is within Earnhardt's control. 
The size of his fan base, easily the biggest in NASCAR, 
is unquestioned. So is the weight that his last name 
carries. His split with stepmother Teresa over ownership 
of DEI had an irresistible, almost soap-opera quality to 
it, and dominated headlines last year. At a recent media 
day at Hendrick, the size of the crowd around Earnhardt 
dwarfed those around Johnson and Gordon, drivers with 
six titles between them. His new teammates seem to accept 
the fact that the attention comes with the driver, and 
also seem able to separate the two. 

"I've learned a lot about him since he's come to Hendrick, 
and what I've learned is, this is a guy who cares a lot 
about his on-track performance, he cares a lot about what 
people think about him, and he wants to make a good 
impression," Gordon said. "Those are great things. Those 
are assets for us, and without him coming over here, you 
don't really know and see some of those things. I think 
he fits very well here. While we were even questioning 
some of the same things other people were about managing 
these high-profile drivers, I see that really not being 
an issue." 

Added Johnson: "I don't feel like he's stealing our thunder 
in any way. The way we all operate as drivers and crew 
chiefs, we just all want respect from one another, and we 
want to go out on track and do our jobs. Junior is a racer 
at heart, and that's one thing I've always respected about 
him, and I don't ever see that being any different. That's 
where the foundation of this four-car team, and even with 
Jeff and Casey [Mears] involved, is going to come from. The 
outside things, they are what they are. We all recognize 
that after we've been in the sport long enough. There's 
just a certain appeal and a huge freaking fan base that he 
has, and I can't do anything about that. But we're going 
to be great teammates and try to go out and win a lot of 
races." 

Earnhardt has certainly helped smooth the process. His late-
night decision last month to jet down to Daytona and watch 
the other three Hendrick drivers test impressed his team-
mates to no end (read more). He sees his No. 88 cars being 
built in the Hendrick shop, and he can't wait to drive 
them. He can't wait to see how he gets around Martinsville, 
can't wait to practice, can't wait to see how his cars 
perform at any number of tracks. He used to open each 
season with the slightest fear of failure lurking in the 
back of his mind; now he's consumed by opportunity. Every 
driver is optimistic at the start of a new season, but 
Junior's level of expectation is stratospheric, and his 
teammates sense it. 

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"Absolutely," Gordon said. "It's no different that Jimmie 
Johnson winning back-to-back championships, that's motiv-
ation for us. How [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] and he commun-
icate, those are things for us to learn from and grow from 
and only become better. Same thing with Junior. When some-
body fresh comes in and they do things a little different, 
same thing with Casey last year. Sometimes you get 
complacent and you get too comfortable. It's nice to see 
some of that refreshing excitement, especially when it's 
somebody like Dale Earnhardt Jr. That only rubs off on 
everybody else." 

And then there's Earnhardt's relationship with his new 
boss, someone he knew as a person long before he knew him 
as an employer. Rick Hendrick has been in Dale Jr.'s life 
for years as an advisor and mentor, helping the driver 
think through the process of leaving DEI even before it 
became clear that Earnhardt wanted to land at Hendrick. He 
once owned a then-Busch car in which Earnhardt's father 
won a race, and employed Earnhardt's grandfather as a 
fabricator. Hendrick knew the younger Earnhardt, knew his 
family, knew his desire to drive dependable equipment and 
erase the questions over whether he could win a title. 
Would Little E fit? There was never a doubt. 

"We made it clear how we operate, and he wanted that," 
Hendrick said. "I've used this word a ton, but it's 
'respect.' If the guys don't respect me, or they don't 
respect each other, then it can be a free fall. You can 
have people tear it up. I've said it before, this company 
won't be broken down from the outside, it will happen from 
the inside. I'm determined not to let that happen. When 
you see a problem, you've got deal with it. These crew 
chiefs here, they see a guy that doesn't fit, doesn't want 
to participate, that thinks it's all crap, the meetings 
and the way we approach things, they get them out of here. 
It's like a cancer, it grows and it creates problems. Can 
you have too many talented people? I don't think so. I 
think as long as they work together, they're OK." 

Sure, these days, Earnhardt may have to shave a little 
more often. But it's still him, the auburn-haired kid from 
Mooresville, N.C., with the twangy accent. He and Hendrick 
keep running score on the shirttail -- tucked in for the 
media event, but left out for a sponsor engagement the 
night before. The colors and the packaging may have changed 
a bit, but not the person. Dale Jr. knows who he is. It all 
goes back to that sense of place. 

"I've known Rick forever. Rick comes from a small town just 
like I do. Rick knows rough times. Rick knows what a shirt-
tail looks like," Earnhardt joked. "You see where people 
are now, where Rick is now, where Jeff is now, Jimmie now. 
That's not how they were when they started. They weren't 
always that way. They can appreciate that I don't strive 
to make it to New York as far as a residence. That's not 
going to be my place to go kick back in a bar or a club. 
I like Mooresville. That's the kind of person I am. That's 
who I'll always be. They won't change that, and I don't 
expect them to ask me to do anything differently." 

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