MOORESVILLE, N.C. - When Dale Earnhardt Jr. needed career advice, he turned to Rick Hendrick. When his grandfather suffered a stroke, it was Hendrick who made arrangements at the hospital. | Photo gallery
When his sister had a cancer scare, Hendrick stepped in to find a specialist.
And when Earnhardt needed to find a new team, it was a no-brainer. He landed with Hendrick, announcing a five-year deal Wednesday to join the elite team in 2008.
In many ways, they need each other.
This could be the partnership that helps Earnhardt finally win the championship that has eluded him during his Nextel Cup career.
More importantly, it could help fill an aching void that both have lived with since tragic accidents killed Earnhardt's famous father and four members of Hendrick's family, including his only son.
"I don't want to take his father's place, but I think we offer something that both of us are missing,'' Hendrick said. "It's not that he's looking for me to be his dad, or I'm looking for him to be my son.
"We have a common bond that we both lost somebody … so there's something there.''
That bond played a large part in Earnhardt's decision to choose Hendrick Motorsports over all the other suitors he had in the frenzied five-week push to sign NASCAR's most popular driver.
He could have chosen Richard Childress, who fielded cars for six of the late Dale Earnhardt's seven championships. Or he could have gone with Joe Gibbs, who as coach of his beloved Washington Redskins left Junior awe-struck during their meetings.
"There wasn't a wrong answer,'' Earnhardt said.
But as he fretted over his decision, constantly weighing the pros and cons of each offer, Hendrick always stood above the others.
The two have known each other since Junior was a little boy, and his Daddy gave Hendrick his first NASCAR win in a 1983 Busch Series race. He was close to Hendrick's son, Ricky, before he and nine others were killed in a 2004 plane crash, and he'd seen how Hendrick treats his employees the same way he treats his family.
He watched as Hendrick allowed his maternal grandfather, Robert Gee, to continue working at HMS long after he was physically able. And in the six years since the elder Earnhardt's fatal accident at the Daytona 500, Hendrick has continuously offered Junior the kind of career advice he would have gone to his own father for.
When he turned to Hendrick following his May 10 decision to leave DEI, it just felt right. DEI officials did not immediately respond to a phone call for comment.
"I've had such a great relationship with Rick over the years, " Earnhardt said. "The things he does for people … I don't deny that Joe and Richard are the same, but I've known Rick. I know how he treated my granddaddy when he was ill. He employed Robert years past his ability to be a competent worker. That was really important to me.
"I already felt close to him as a friend before he even talked to me about driving for him. It wasn't a really hard decision to go to drive for him.''
It wasn't so easy to break the news to the other owners.
Earnhardt was the most sought-after free agent in NASCAR history, and embarked on a recruiting tour like nothing the sport had ever seen. He went on shop visits - often after hours, so the employees wouldn't see him - and flew on the Redskins' plane to meet with Gibbs.
After seven-plus seasons at DEI, he was exploring the industry for the first time in his career.
"Richard and I have known each other all my life, and he has been incredible to me. Joe was my hero as a child … for me to sit down in front of him and talk to him about going to work for him, that experience was overwhelming and exciting,'' Earnhardt said.
"Once I made up my mind to go where I wanted to go, this big hurt set in on how I was going to express that to those guys.''
By the time he climbed the stage at JR Motorsports on Wednesday, the stress and strain of the past few months was gone. He was practically giddy as he introduced Hendrick as his new boss, and beamed as he discussed his new opportunities. He wanted to pump his fist with excitement, but sister Kelley Earnhardt Elledge had warned him it might seem cheesy.
Earnhardt will replace Kyle Busch in the Hendrick stable, which has suddenly become the New York Yankees of NASCAR.
The team fields cars for four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who leads all active drivers with 79 career victories, and defending Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Busch and Casey Mears round out the team, which has combined to win 10 of 14 races this season.
Mears was thought to be expendable, but shored up his seat with a dramatic win in last month's Coca-Cola 600. So it was Busch, who was signed through 2008, who was ousted after a successful but turbulent tenure.
He signed with Hendrick before his 18th birthday, and has four Cup wins in his two-plus Cup seasons. But he's had run-ins with veteran drivers - including a recent wreck with older brother, Kurt, the 2004 series champion - that had tested Hendrick's patience.
When talks on a contract extension stalled, Hendrick told Busch he wanted to make a run at adding Earnhardt to the team.
"This Junior thing has stirred up the world,'' Hendrick said. "It's one of those deals where you say 'Do I want to pass this up when you're so close to it? Do you influence it or not try to influence it? Then the situation with Kyle came up and all of a sudden the door opens.''
Hendrick hasn't decided which car Earnhardt will drive - it could be the No. 5, the No. 25, or he could make a play to get Earnhardt's No. 8 away from DEI - and he's not sure who the sponsor will be. Although Budweiser has been with Earnhardt since 1999, Hendrick has four primary sponsors locked up through next season and isn't planning to break any contracts.
All that is incidental to Earnhardt, who is thrilled to finally have his future in place.
"I am happy, happy, happy,'' he said. "I felt like I was homeless. I was confused. It was a real hard time. I just wanted so bad to have a decision made and know what I was doing.
"I always kind of dreamed about driving for Rick. He's just a good guy.''