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.