THEY CAN'T take their eyes off him. Especially not now. Not on this winter afternoon in Charlotte, when the most popular driver in NASCAR—and the sport's most desirable bachelor—is stripping and tossing his clothes aside one piece at a time. ¬∂ As Dale Earnhardt Jr. unzips his blue jeans in a small conference room at Hendrick Motorsports headquarters, a woman walking across the parking lot outside spots him through the floor-to-ceiling window. Wide-eyed, she mouths the words Oh ... my ... God and stops to watch the impromptu peep show. Another woman, standing inside the room with the near-naked race car driver, is getting weak in the knees. "You look gooood," she says. Even Earnhardt's silver-haired boss, Rick Hendrick, hovering near the doorway, takes one look at his newest driver—now down to a T-shirt and a pair of boxers printed with yellow rubber ducks—and says, "Man, you are unreal."
"You all want to know my secret and why I'm the most popular driver around?" shouts Earnhardt, smiling devilishly—the same wicked grin his old man used to flash when playing a prank. After waiting a beat he points to his lean, and white-as-baby-powder, body. "It's right here, baaay-beee! Right here!"
So, do you think the 33-year-old Earnhardt is enjoying himself these days? After the final race of 2007 Little E, winless in his last 62 starts, left the racing team founded by his father, Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI), to join Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR's reigning powerhouse. Hendrick drivers won half of the 36 Nextel Cup races last season, and Jimmie Johnson (opposite) won his second straight points championship. But it isn't his new team's ruthless dominance that has Earnhardt's spirits soaring as he begins the second chapter of his stock car career; it's the fact that Rick Hendrick has already provided Earnhardt with something he has been searching for since Dale Sr. died in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500: An owner-driver connection that's deep and meaningful to both of them.
"This is a new day and a new era for me," Earnhardt says. "I can't believe how excited I am. I'm like the first one in and the last one to leave every day, and that sure as hell ain't like me. Something is happening to me, and it feels damn good. And I'll tell you something: It all starts with Rick."
KELLEY EARNHARDT was a mess of nerves. It was late last March, and she was scrambling through her little brother's kitchen in Mooresville, N.C., searching for drinking glasses and silverware. A distinguished guest was on his way to Junior's three-bedroom modular home for dinner that evening, but when Kelley opened the cabinets, she discovered that Dale Jr., who made an estimated $27.1 million last year in winnings and endorsements, was woefully ill-prepared for the occasion: Kelley found mason jars that served as glasses and plastic knives, forks and spoons.
"You've got to know this about Dale: He's a very simple guy," says Kelley, 35, Dale Jr.'s most trusted friend. "We joke that all he really needs is a tent, a computer and a T1 line, and he'd be content. But when Rick Hendrick comes to your house, you've got to set the table properly. Dale didn't have much, so I rushed back to my house to get some silverware and glasses."
The 58-year-old Hendrick was dropping by to discuss Earnhardt's racing future and to offer him the kind of guidance that his daddy—as Junior still refers to Big E—had provided. Though he wouldn't make an official announcement until more than two months later, Earnhardt had already decided that he didn't want to continue racing for DEI beyond 2007. Dale Sr. had hoped that his namesake would take over day-to-day operation of DEI at some point, but Junior believed he had to leave because of his fractured relationship with his stepmother, Teresa, who had assumed ownership of DEI after Dale Sr. passed away. (Teresa turned down SI's request for an interview.)
With his contract expiring at the end of '07, Little E had asked Teresa, who rarely attends races, for majority control of the company so he could try to build it into an elite organization. Though Junior had won Busch Series titles in 1998 and '99 with DEI and had 17 career victories at the Cup level, he had never seriously contended for a championship in eight years on the Cup circuit. His biggest complaint was that DEI didn't have the resources or engineering expertise that Hendrick, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing had. He drove mediocre equipment to top 10 finishes—nobody can ride the high line around the track like Little E—but he grew increasingly frustrated by engine failures (a Cup-high seven in '07) and lack of consistent speed.
So on May 10, after Teresa refused to sell him majority control of DEI, Junior held a press conference in Mooresville and, with misty eyes, told a media crowd of 200 that he was leaving the team. In an instant Earnhardt's search for a new ride became the story of the year in NASCAR. "I am scared s---less," Junior told a visitor 30 minutes after the press conference. "Me and Teresa do not see eye to eye. I wish we did, but we don't.... Man, I look at the fun that other drivers have with their owners. I want a guy who's going to be at the track and give me feedback. I want to feel really part of an entire organization."
Days later Earnhardt dispatched his cousin and longtime crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., to visit prospective teams, entrusting him with the decision on where they should race together in 2008 and beyond. Eury toured several race shops, including Gibbs and Richard Childress Racing, but it wasn't until he walked through the doors of Hendrick Motorsports and Rick guided him through the sprawling 600,000-square-foot facility that he found his vision of racing nirvana. Eury, who had spent two summers as a teenager sweeping floors at Hendrick 19 years earlier, was awed by the state-of-the-art equipment, the engineering support (Hendrick's 60 engineers are the most of any NASCAR organization) and the overall camaraderie of the 550 employees—none of which he'd had at DEI.
The next day Earnhardt called Eury and asked for a report: "How was it, man?"
"Well, it's the best, hands down," replied Eury. "Hendrick is where we need to be."
And with that, Earnhardt was determined to honor a commitment he'd made more than 15 years earlier.
IT BEGAN as a joke. On a summer afternoon in 1991, Little E was lounging in a motor home parked in the infield at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kans., when Rick Hendrick strolled through the door. The 16-year-old Earnhardt had been shadowing Ken Schrader, a Cup veteran and longtime family friend, in the days leading up to a race in the ARCA series, and after Hendrick was introduced to the skinny teenager, the owner asked him, "Do you want to race for me someday?"
Dale Jr. excitedly nodded his head, and Hendrick reached for a napkin, drew up a two-line "contract" on it and had the boy scribble his signature. Hendrick knew this playful deal would raise the ire of Little E's father. "When I mentioned it to Dale, he just gave me that look of his," says Hendrick, smiling with the recollection. "He knew his son was going to drive for him, not me."
Though Dale Sr. and Hendrick were rivals at the racetrack—Big E drove for Childress and annually dueled Hendrick's Jeff Gordon for championships—the two were close friends. Hendrick had offered Dale Sr. a ride in the mid-1980s (he politely refused), and the two nearly started a sportswear business together in the late '90s. One of the last conversations Hendrick had with Dale Sr. focused on the one thing that mattered most to the Intimidator: his youngest son.
"My wife, Linda, and I were talking to Dale Sr. and he said that Dale Jr. was a good boy," recalls Hendrick. "He said Junior was good with his money, that he was tight as hell. And Linda replied that we pray for him, which prompted Dale Sr. to say, 'Good. He needs it.'"
Growing up around racetracks, Dale Jr. befriended Hendrick's only son, Ricky, who was six years younger. As Little E progressed through the racing ranks, he frequently spent time at Ricky's condominium in Charlotte. The two grew so close that they started joking that one day Dale Jr. would drive for Ricky, who stood to inherit the Hendrick Motorsports empire. Ricky even informed his father that he had a plan to lure his friend to the Hendrick team.
Then in 2004, on a gray October morning in southern Virginia, a twin-engine plane owned by Hendrick Motorsports and headed for a race in Martinsville crashed into fog-shrouded Bull Mountain. Among the 10 people killed were Ricky; Hendrick's brother, John; and John's daughters, Kimberly and Jennifer. For several months Hendrick, tormented by the death of so many he loved, mostly stayed away from racing.
When Hendrick did return to the track, Earnhardt approached him and Linda on pit road before a race in Charlotte, softly telling them, "Ricky was a fine boy. A real fine boy." Because it lurks on every turn at every track, death is rarely discussed in NASCAR circles. Though it is a topic that Earnhardt and Hendrick seldom delve into, the tragedies that have so profoundly affected the driver and the owner formed a deeper bond between them.
"We have some things in common, unfortunate things," says Earnhardt. "People will say that Rick will take the place of my daddy or I will take the place of Ricky, but it's not really that. What's happening is that we both understand what the other one has lost. Without using words we know that we've each dealt with some terrible things. And this has built up an incredible trust between us."
Says Hendrick, "One of the things Dale Jr. and I share is that the plans of our lives haven't worked out. Ricky was supposed to take over my business, and Dale Jr. was supposed to take over his dad's. It's a void and a tremendous hurt. But when your world changes, you have to move on, and both of us are doing that—and now we're doing it together."
IT'S A BREEZY November morning in South Florida, the palm trees are swaying and, for the first time, all the Hendrick drivers are together: Gordon, Johnson, Casey Mears and the new guy, Junior. Earnhardt had signed a multiyear contract last June to drive the number 88 Chevy (replacing Kyle Busch in the Hendrick stable) and the four teammates are posed for a photographer at Homestead-Miami Speedway two days before the final race of the '07 season. But before they flash their best sponsor-friendly smiles, Gordon can't help but needle Earnhardt. "Hey, guys," Gordon says to Johnson and Mears, "should we teach him the secret handshake or not?"—a joke that sets off a round of laughter.
In fact, Junior should have little trouble fitting in at Hendrick. He was close friends with the other three drivers before joining the team. And Eury spent the final 10 weeks of last season shadowing other Hendrick crew chiefs, learning the team's lexicon and how its Chevys are set up. Earnhardt's driving style closely mirrors Johnson's—they both like loose race cars and tend to use the brake less than most drivers—so Eury paid particular attention to every adjustment Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, made to the champion's car. "Being at Hendrick at the end of the season gave me a chance to get up to speed on most things," says Eury. "There's definitely going to be an adjustment period, but we'll be competitive early. Real competitive."
If Junior starts winning races again, and the consensus in the garage is that he'll reach Victory Lane more than once in '08, the big payoff will go to NASCAR. Television ratings and attendance have slipped two years in a row in the Cup series, which has Sprint replacing Nextel as title sponsor this year. But the attraction to Earnhardt is so strong—he has been voted most popular driver six years in a row by stock car fans—that he could have the same impact on NASCAR's ratings that Tiger Woods has on the PGA's.
"Dale Jr. is easily a top five talent," says one longtime NASCAR spotter. "Everyone in the garage is expecting him to win a ton of races now that he's with Hendrick, and he should contend for the championship as early as this season."
"I understand that I have no more excuses," says Earnhardt. "Now I'll have the best equipment and the best people behind me. It's time for me to start winning. I do know my daddy would be damn envious of me right now."
BACK IN the small conference room at Hendrick Motorsports, Little E's clothes are off—and his new driver's suit is on, for the first time. "The arms are too tight," Earnhardt says to the tailor, who will be making the adjustments. "And bring the [collar] zipper down one inch."
Rick Hendrick is among the half-dozen people admiring Earnhardt in his new green-and-white uniform. It's been a long, pain-filled road for both of them, but finally the two most powerful figures in NASCAR are united. And whatever happens in this Sunday's 50th running of the Daytona 500—a debut victory for the 88 car would not be a shock—the future is filled with promise and good feelings.
HENDRICK HAS ALREADY PROVIDED EARNHARDT WITH AN OWNER-DRIVER CONNECTION THAT'S DEEP AND MEANINGFUL TO BOTH OF THEM.
"I UNDERSTAND THAT I HAVE NO MORE EXCUSES," SAYS EARNHARDT. "NOW I'LL HAVE THE BEST EQUIPMENT. IT'S TIME FOR ME TO START WINNING."
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HOT START In his first race for Hendrick, Earnhardt delivered a victory in the Budweiser Shootout—and a celebratory burnout—last Saturday night at Daytona.
MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
RUSTY JARRETT/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
PROMISE FULFILLED Hendrick (left), who signed Little E to a "contract" at age 16, made the real deal with Earnhardt last June.
JASON SMITH/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
ON THE LINE Earnhardt, who went low in his new number 88 Chevy to pass Michael Waltrip in the Shootout, has the horsepower he needed.
SON'S UP Dale Sr. (right, in 2000) envisioned Junior taking over DEI some day. After the father's death Hendrick provided a new home.