DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I'd like to thank everybody for being here today. It's a pretty packed crowd we've got. It's been a privilege to invite everyone back here to JR Motorsports for a very special announcement regarding my racing career. First ...
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I'd like to thank everybody for being here today. It's a pretty packed crowd we've got. It's been a privilege to invite everyone back here to JR Motorsports for a very special announcement regarding my racing career. First before I get started I'd like to take a moment to thank the fans and the media for their patience and giving me the time I needed to make this important announcement and decision.
I've taken this as seriously as anything I've ever done before. And I could say this process has opened my eyes to many great people in the sport. I want to thank each of the team owners who brought me in, gave me their time and answered my questions. I want each of them to know that I value their friendships and am extremely appreciative for their honesty. When we announced a month ago that we would seek a new team for 2008 we were immediately asked for a timetable.
I had hoped to have a decision by midsummer but I had no idea how long this would take since I had never been in this position.
I wanted to take as much time possible to find the right team, the team that was right for me as a person and where I could compete for championships. As I sit here today, I can say with complete honesty that I have found and accomplished that goal. We talked with many teams, but one stood out above the rest and it became apparent to me the man I wanted to drive for. I've known him since childhood. He competes with integrity, and most importantly, he wins races.
I feel like this decision will give me that opportunity and hopefully I can give my fans what they expect and deserve and have a whole lot of fun along the way. And so today, it is with great honor that I introduce my new boss for 2008, Mr. Rick Hendrick.
THE MODERATOR: Without understating or over stating anything, this is huge. Start off by talking a little about how this evolved and what this means to you personally and to Hendrick Motorsports?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, it is a wow day. It is an awful special day for me, both from a personal standpoint and a professional standpoint. You know, in my whole racing career, this day is going to go down as one that I'm still having a hard time believing that we've got it done and it's happening.
It's just good to see the rest of the family here, Mrs. Earnhardt, Brenda, good to see all you folks. It's a day that's an exciting time for us to be able to bring a talent like Junior into our camp and to be able to take a lot of pleasure in trying to win championships for different people. But this one has got a special place in my heart. Because Ricky told me about four years ago, this was going to happen one day and I said, I don't think it's ever going to happen. So we are kind of bringing that to life today.
I can't tell you how special this is to me, how thrilled I am and how much pressure I feel to make sure that -- (Laughter) -- that he's going to win races. And I think he said it, too. We're going to have some fun along the way, because I've known him since he was a puppy, he and Kelley both. It's just something that's really special to me.
THE MODERATOR: I know there are a lot of people that are looking down smiling; Dale Sr., Ricky and Papa Joe all come to mind. Something we've heard told over the years, and this is a question for both of you, I've heard bits and pieces about a napkin story and a napkin contract perhaps. Can each one of you tell your version of the story?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I had been fortunate enough to be invited on a trip with Kenny Schrader around the Midwest to run some dirt tracks. And it was going to end up at Topeka, Kansas where Rick was racing and my dad was going to race with Schrader. I was running around with Schrader for the whole week and we get to Topeka and that's the first time I had ever met Rick, and he was introduced to me and he said, "Have you got a contract to drive for anybody." I wasn't even racing, you know. (Laughter) I was not even close.
But I thought it was a joke and he wrote down on a napkin, wrote a contract down on a napkin and I signed it. We were joking around. Obviously he's a pretty smart businessman, and I figured even if it was a joke -- I'd better sign it because it might come in handy one day. (Laughter).
THE MODERATOR: And that was in 1991. Rick if you still have that napkin, I've got a perfect home for it. What's your recollection of that and what took 17 years to get Dale Jr. to own up to the contract?
RICK HENDRICK: The first thing I was concerned with was how Dale let him go to the Midwest with Schrader. (Laughter) I felt like I kind of needed to protect him a little bit.
You know what was so funny about that, as -- how old were you then?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: 15.
RICK HENDRICK: So we did that. And it was later I think, I don't know what year it was, but Ricky ran his first Busch race at Myrtle Beach and I went to the drivers meeting and I ended up standing beside Junior and I said, you remember you signed the contract with me.
He said, "I thought I forgot that."
I said, no, I didn't forget it. I was just scared of your daddy. I wasn't going to try to enforce it. So we laughed and he said, well, I've got to have a Corvette for all of my team members, I said that's no problem. He remembered it and I remember it and we joke about it. Those kind of things are special memories.
MODERATOR: Did you get the Corvette thing written down in the contract?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Nah, that napkin was pretty small but it had the most important stuff on it.
It was a fun time.
MODERATOR: One of the obvious questions is you currently have a stable with four drivers and something has changed, can you talk about how this came together and what the situation is there at Hendrick Motorsports?
RICK HENDRICK: Kyle Busch and I, we had been negotiating an extension on his contract for the last, almost since the end of last year. And those conversations were moving along and it became pretty, you know, obvious to me that other people were talking to Kyle at the time and he was a guy in the garage area that at his age and his ability, which is an unbelievable talent; he had people picking on him just to make sure he was going to have an opening or an opportunity.
In the last discussions, we started talking around the Charlotte race trying to get things finished up and in those conversations; it became pretty obvious to both of us that maybe a fresh start might be good for both of us. He had unbelievable opportunities. You know, I'm trying to negotiate to get things done. I have an unbelievable opportunity and so you know with a tremendous amount of respect and putting a lot of effort into bringing him into the series, he's got so much opportunity. We decided it would be good for him to pursue those and for me to be able to pursue this opportunity with Junior.
But a commitment from both of us that we're committed to that 5 car to win the championship if we can finish the race and concentrate on that to the end of the year and that's what we intend to do.
MODERATOR: We see a Hendrick Motorsports back drop. Have there been decisions made on car number, sponsor, team alignments?
RICK HENDRICK: Well you folks are so good, the media. If we move or make one phone call, you're on it. We've got so much to get squared away, we don't -- we haven't decided on any of that yet. We made the deal. We know that for the next five years that Dale's going to be with us and a lot of things can change before the end of the year. But the car number, the sponsor, the alignment, all that, we're going to work on. But none of that's in place yet.
MODERATOR: Dale Jr., a lot of people may not realize that the relationship with the Earnhardt family goes back a long way. Of course, your grandfather Robert Gee Sr., was a very big part of Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Sr. even drove a few times for Hendrick Motorsports. Talk about how much this means in that history and your recollections of that history growing up.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, my granddaddy worked with Rick and kind of helped Rick get into racing, or he was there along the way the entire time. Rick tells a story about him putting a hood scoop on his Chevelle when he was 16 or 17 and that's how they met.
But he was one of the best body men in the business, if not the best. And he was really proud of his employment and his involvement at Hendricks, and you know, that was always apparent to me as his grandson when I would go over to his shop, the pride that he took in where he worked and how his job was and everything.
But my dad and Rick were friends throughout his career and his life. Daddy helped Rick when Rick got in the sport, tested his first Cup car, shook down Rick's first Cup car. I think he won Rick's first race in stock cars at Charlotte in the Busch Series in 1983, was it?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: So there are a lot of connections there. And me and Rick have been friends since I was little. He's always treated me with a lot of respect and been genuine about my well being and how I was doing and what he could do to help so that's always been really cool about Rick.
THE MODERATOR: I was just talking to your mom before we came down here about having the chance to deliver parts down to Robert Gee's shop years ago and how meticulous the shop was.
Rick, one final question from me and we'll open it up to the audience. This is quite a snag and Dale Jr. has without a doubt the biggest brand recognition as a driver right now in NASCAR racing. So how does that blend with Hendrick Motorsports from your perspective and for him to be able to maintain his marketability and brand, and from Hendrick Motorsports perspective which certainly has a huge brand recognition in its own right?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, I think all of our drivers are a little different, and it's good that, you know, Jeff, Jimmie and Casey are friends of Dale's. You know, it's important to me and to Junior to protect his brand and grow it. I work for Kelley now and she's told me how important that is.
You know, it's a situation where we want to give him the best equipment we can. I told him that our goal would be to go to Daytona and win the Busch race and the Cup race. I promised Mr. Earnhardt I would take her to New York if we won the championship. So I made a lot of commitments today that I'm going to have to live up to.
But along the way, again, when we first started talking, it was, you know, to try to help them and again, there were conversations with he and Ricky way back. It's just been neat to see what they have built, and what he's created. We want to add to that. We want to try to give him the best equipment that we can and there are a lot of other things that we plan on doing together. And I'm just going to enjoy the relationship.
Again, it's not just professional; it's personal. But from the professional side, I feel the pressure. I felt it when I drove in here today, and I know I'm going to feel it when we show up in Daytona, and I'm committed to do everything I can to make the entire relationship the best it can be for he and his family.
MODERATOR: I would say you've done a pretty good job of living up to and delivering on the pressure you may have felt over the years since 1984 with Hendrick Motorsports.
I know there are a lot of questions from the audience.
Q: You've won 10 of 14 races, and you've got the all-time active wins leader and the defending champion and now you're added NASCAR's most popular driver. You're starting to look like the New York Yankees of NASCAR. Is there any point that stockpiling all of this talent might be bad for the sport?
RICK HENDRICK: I don't think so. They are going to race each other. I mean, we've seen it with our cars this year when you see Jeff and Jimmie at Martinsville and you hold your breath that they don't wreck each other.
I think when you have multi-car teams, you try to get -- my job is to get the best talent out there. You know, I want to protect the brand. I want to protect Junior's image and who he is, but I want to give him the best stuff. And he's going to have to beat those guys anyway. They are going to have to beat him anyway, no matter if he's with our team or somewhere else. Once again, on the racetrack, it's kind of everybody for themselves. My job is to give them the best equipment to get that done.
We have been very fortunate this year. I have to check the horseshoe to make sure it hasn't fallen completely out every morning, because we've had some races this year that we could just as easily be sitting here winning five races, and I know that. And you're going to be asking me probably 10 races from now, hey, what happened, and we're going to be doing the same thing. You can't control people running out of gas or flat fires or whatever.
We are on a roll right now and I wish it was the last 10 instead of this 10 but I guess I should be honored that I would be compared to the Yankees, I don't know. We're just working hard. Everybody is working together to kind of let each driver earn his own way.
Q: Dale, it's no secret that your relationship with Teresa was rough, or has been rough. Already today we've heard Rick talk about this personal relationship issue. Obviously every team has similar equipment, similar cars, so what kind of a role did the relationship with Rick have in this decision-making process, as opposed to picking another team?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: For me personally, it had a huge impact on my decision. You know, a lot of people don't know -- a lot of people really don't know a lot of the inside relationships in the garage, a lot of the friendships that have been around for years.
Obviously we talked about me and Rick becoming friends and knowing each other for a while, but over that period of time, there's been a lot of decisions that I've had to make and a lot of things that I've went through where I sought advice from key people in the sport and he was one of those guys. He was just always really genuine to me. And even when I was thinking about my decision to leave DEI, his main concern was just my well being, and he had no other motives or any other intentions other than just trying to help me in any way he could, be as happy as I could at the end of the day.
So that was one of the things that I never forgot and I probably will remember for a long time about Rick, is just that he -- you know, when it comes down to business, he's a smart businessman, but really and genuinely cares about the people that are his friends or the people that he employs and he takes care of them. That was a big deciding factor for me.
Continued in part 2