Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dale Earnhardt Jr. the choices he’s made

As expected Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined Hendrick Motorsports Wednesday creating arguably the most powerful team in NASCAR history. Earnhardt usually signs thee-year contracts reached a five-year agreement with Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick.

Hendrick Motorsports has won ten NASCAR championships in the last decade and currently fields teams in the sanctioning body’s top two divisions -- the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series and Busch Series. Drivers include Kyle Busch of the No. 5 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Kelloggs / CARQUEST Racing team, Jeff Gordon of the No. 24 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup DuPont Racing Team, Casey Mears of the No. 25 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup National Guard / GMAC Racing team, Jimmie Johnson of the No. 48 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Lowes Racing Team and NASCAR Busch Series drivers Kyle Busch of the No. 5 Lowes/Spectracide/Sta-Green/Delphi entry and Casey Mears, driver of the No. 24 National Guard Chevrolets.

Hendrick Motorsports has won the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Championship in 1995 with Jeff Gordon, 1996 with Terry Labonte, 1997, 1998, and 2001 with Jeff Gordon and in 2006 with Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick Motorsports won its first NASCAR Busch Series Championship with driver Brian Vickers in 2003. The organization has also won three NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series crowns with Jack Sprague in 1997, 1999, and 2001.

Founded by Rick Hendrick over two decades ago Hendrick Motorsports has fielded some of the most famous names in NASCAR in its Chevrolets. Drivers who have sat behind the wheel of a Hendrick Chevy include Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond, Geoff Bodine, Brett Bodine, Ken Schrader, Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons, Ricky Rudd, Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Ricky Craven, Jerry Nadeau, Joe Nemechek, Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch, Ricky Hendrick, Jack Sprague, and Casey Mears.

Earnhardt NASCAR’s biggest brand name joins what should be a marketing/driving machine. Starting with the 2008 Daytona 500, Jr. who has never won a NASCAR title will join a team that includes Jeff Gordon one of the strong favorites to win the 2007 Nextel Cup and 2006 winner Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick Motorsports team owner
Rick Hendricks couldn’t be happier he signed the biggest free agent in NASCAR history.

“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, again, 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 kinds 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 Kelly both. It's just something that's really special to me.”

Hendrick knows full well the pressure to help deliver Earnhardt Jr. his first Nextel Cup title is real and immediate.

“I've been through this before where if Jimmie wins, Jeff's fans say I don't give him the good equipment. So I'm sure in this situation, if he's not winning, it's going to be my fault. If he's winning, it's going to be because of his talent. And if it's not, it's because of not giving good stuff. That's the way a lot of the fans look at it. So that pressure is there. “You know, again, he's such an icon in the sport and he made a decision to come with us, based on our performance and ability to give him what he needs to reach those goals.

“So that's the competitive side of me that adds pressure that I want to deliver what we said we could deliver and what he's expecting.

“You know, this is because of the magnitude of his, you know space and position in the sport with his fan base and so forth, it's been an appeal to everyone connected. You know, you just want to work hard to give him what you can.

“And as far as the competition inside the camp, there's already a little bid of a feud -- not a feud, but a competition between Jeff and Jimmie. They are running for the championship and they can be friends and they can be upset when they lose a race. But they get back and go again. So I feel like that's going to be the same situation here.

“You know, again, the pressure is because I want to deliver, and I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen because it's going to be a lot of people watching.”

Hendrick is also well aware the sound he hears in the near future is the cash register ringing from increased merchandising and sales opportunities with Dale Jr. joining his stellar stable of racers, but first he knows full well he had better make sure there’s peace among the Hendrick Team members.

“I'm going to ask them to be nice and don't wreck each other -- no, that would be a good problem to have. I hope that works out that way. You know, I do plan to expand the gift shop. It's going to be an exciting time for our company and I think it's really no different than racing Tony or, you know, Denny or Matt Kenseth when they are all out there racing. Those guys driving those cars, they are so competitive, they want to beat each other.

“We have a good program going right now where they share information, crew chief drivers, engineers, and they help each other in driving styles and it's okay to beat on each other. Just don't wreck each other. They understand that and I watched Dale drive and he's not going to -- I think most of the guys in the garage area today have kind of adopted that philosophy that if you do that, you're going to get paid back and it's just going to make life difficult and NASCAR is going to watch and they are going to take action and all of the above.

“So hopefully we have that problem at Daytona that they are running like that. That would be great. You know, we are just, again, that would be a good problem to have.”

For Dale Earnhardt Jr. the chance to join Hendricks Motorsports answered all of the questions he had when he decided to leave DEI Racing (his late father’s company last month).

“I've taken this 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 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 could 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 that the man -- 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 to introduce my new boss for 2008, Mr. Rick Hendrick.”

When the news first broke Tuesday evening that Earnhardt Jr. was signing with Hendrick Motorsports it was widely reported Jr.’s longtime sponsor Budweiser wouldn’t be a part of Wednesday’s announcement. Should Jr.’s longtime fans see that as a sign Bud and Jr. are parting ways?

“Well I think that the fans will makeup their own minds and somehow, you know, come to terms with whatever decision we would have made. I feel like you know, once we get on the racetrack and have some success, you know, we'll be able to give them what they deserve.

“Like I said months ago, I feel like over the years I sort of haven't been able to give them what I feel they deserve. I want to get them on their feet more often than I do. I'm trying to make those decisions not only for me, but to make that happen. So I think that they will find a lot of things to get excited about in the future. But you know, as far as sponsorships, we haven't -- we haven't began to work around that and see what the options are and opportunities are for us and that's something we'll work down the road.”

Benj Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer's Insights told the Associated Press he believes the relationship between the St. Louis based brewer and Earnhardt Jr. has been one of the keys to Bud’s success in recent years.

"It's been a long-term lynchpin of their sponsorships," Steinman said.

How popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. is was driven home when a number of fans waited outside JR Motorsports on Wednesday morning (the public was not admitted to the press conference) made it clear Dale Jr. is their driver.

“Everybody knows Hendrick’s is the best stable out there as far as equipment, technology and everything,” said Sharon Weddington, 49, of Mooresville, who was also a fan of Ralph Earnhardt, the family patriarch and Earnhardt Jr.’s grandfather in a New York Times report. Weddington, who is blind, attends about four races a year., She said she had hoped Earnhardt would sign with Childress and drive the No. 33. Earnhardt Sr. had driven the famed No. 3 for Childress. But she said she understands why he chose Hendrick.

“He’s got what he needs and I think he’s just gonna show the world now what he really can do when he’s got the equipment to do it with,” said Weddington. “Honestly, a true fan is going to follow him. They’re gonna be there. Our blood is red. Budweiser red.”

While Jr. may be become a free agent his contract with Budweiser has one year left on its term and if you ask Budweiser they’re big fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"Anheuser-Busch has enjoyed a remarkable relationship with Dale Earnhardt Jr. since our sponsorship commenced back in 1999," Tony Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of global media and sports marketing, said in an e-mail statement.

Ponturo suggested the company wasn't prepared to let Earnhardt slip away too easily.

"We look forward to exploring options with Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports to continue Budweiser's relationship with him as he enters this new stage of his racing career," Ponturo said.

Many initially believed Earnhardt Jr. would join Richard Childress Racing his late father’s team and drive Dale Earnhardt’s famed number 3 car. The number 3 car isn’t and may have never been in Dale Jr.’s future, and what makes it even more difficult for Jr.’s legion of loyal fans in all likelihood DEI will hold onto the number 8 car Earnhardt Jr. has been driving for years.

“I feel like -- I'd like to be No. 8, but you know, we have to obviously talk to Teresa about that and see what her interest is there. I'll just go ahead and throw that out there.
But other than that -- might as well. It work the pretty good sometimes when you let the media speak for you.

“You know, there's other numbers that you know, I have interest in. We'll just have to sit down. I want to have -- I want to have any hands in the design of what the car looks like. Rick's said that I have -- that I'll have some ability to, you know, have some influence on what the car looks like, the numbers, things like that.

“So you know, we'll just have to sit down and see what looks cool. But as far as -- I never really looked at Hendrick Motorsports as our archrival or nemesis or whatever you. We competed against them and they were one of the best competitors over the years obviously. They set the mark for most, if not all the teams, at least the Chevrolet teams.

“But I always looked at the Fords and the Roushes and those guys as more of my competitors I had more interest in out running and beating. But Jeff has always been a real good friend of mine. Him and dad were business partners on several things. Dad helped him a lot coming into the sport so, Jeff has always tried to -- over the last six years, has always tried to express to me that he's sort of repaying that favor back to my father by helping me in a lot of ways. A lot of things behind the scenes people don't know about.

“I helped Jimmie get in the spore -- I know he won't give me that credit. (Laughter) when he came to St. Louis to drive the Kingsford car, I was the guy he came to ask how to get around the racetrack and when he wanted to buy his first motorhome, he came to me because he never spent that kind of money before.

“We have all been pretty good friends. I'm looking forward to it. We didn't really get to answer that question about the teammates that I'll have in the future but those guys seemed really excited about it and we'll talk about it and we're pretty pumped up about us being teammates next year.”

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The New York Times

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