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Fired Up
LARS ANDERSON
February 18, 2008
Driving for a powerhouse team and with a fresh outlook, NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., plans to give his fans a lot more to cheer about
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February 18, 2008

Fired Up

Driving for a powerhouse team and with a fresh outlook, NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., plans to give his fans a lot more to cheer about

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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.

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