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"We have some things in common, unfortunate things," says Earnhardt. "People will say that Rick will take the place of my daddy or I will take the place of Ricky, but it's not really that. What's happening is that we both understand what the other one has lost. Without using words we know that we've each dealt with some terrible things. And this has built up an incredible trust between us."
Says Hendrick, "One of the things Dale Jr. and I share is that the plans of our lives haven't worked out. Ricky was supposed to take over my business, and Dale Jr. was supposed to take over his dad's. It's a void and a tremendous hurt. But when your world changes, you have to move on, and both of us are doing that—and now we're doing it together."
IT'S A BREEZY November morning in South Florida, the palm trees are swaying and, for the first time, all the Hendrick drivers are together: Gordon, Johnson, Casey Mears and the new guy, Junior. Earnhardt had signed a multiyear contract last June to drive the number 88 Chevy (replacing Kyle Busch in the Hendrick stable) and the four teammates are posed for a photographer at Homestead-Miami Speedway two days before the final race of the '07 season. But before they flash their best sponsor-friendly smiles, Gordon can't help but needle Earnhardt. "Hey, guys," Gordon says to Johnson and Mears, "should we teach him the secret handshake or not?"—a joke that sets off a round of laughter.
In fact, Junior should have little trouble fitting in at Hendrick. He was close friends with the other three drivers before joining the team. And Eury spent the final 10 weeks of last season shadowing other Hendrick crew chiefs, learning the team's lexicon and how its Chevys are set up. Earnhardt's driving style closely mirrors Johnson's—they both like loose race cars and tend to use the brake less than most drivers—so Eury paid particular attention to every adjustment Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, made to the champion's car. "Being at Hendrick at the end of the season gave me a chance to get up to speed on most things," says Eury. "There's definitely going to be an adjustment period, but we'll be competitive early. Real competitive."
If Junior starts winning races again, and the consensus in the garage is that he'll reach Victory Lane more than once in '08, the big payoff will go to NASCAR. Television ratings and attendance have slipped two years in a row in the Cup series, which has Sprint replacing Nextel as title sponsor this year. But the attraction to Earnhardt is so strong—he has been voted most popular driver six years in a row by stock car fans—that he could have the same impact on NASCAR's ratings that Tiger Woods has on the PGA's.
"Dale Jr. is easily a top five talent," says one longtime NASCAR spotter. "Everyone in the garage is expecting him to win a ton of races now that he's with Hendrick, and he should contend for the championship as early as this season."
"I understand that I have no more excuses," says Earnhardt. "Now I'll have the best equipment and the best people behind me. It's time for me to start winning. I do know my daddy would be damn envious of me right now."
BACK IN the small conference room at Hendrick Motorsports, Little E's clothes are off—and his new driver's suit is on, for the first time. "The arms are too tight," Earnhardt says to the tailor, who will be making the adjustments. "And bring the [collar] zipper down one inch."
Rick Hendrick is among the half-dozen people admiring Earnhardt in his new green-and-white uniform. It's been a long, pain-filled road for both of them, but finally the two most powerful figures in NASCAR are united. And whatever happens in this Sunday's 50th running of the Daytona 500—a debut victory for the 88 car would not be a shock—the future is filled with promise and good feelings.